BRUSSELS – With Ukraine defending European values and security in the face of a blatant Russian invasion, what commitment do the European Union and NATO have to Ukraine?
The moral answer may be obvious, with European and American governments pledging support for Kyiv and pumping money and weapons into Ukraine. But the practical answers are complex and divide Europe.
Defying expectations, the European Union provided significant military aid to Ukraine and imposed massive sanctions on Russia, with speed and authority. But now it faces a more difficult question – how to connect weak countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to Europe in a way that helps it and does not create more security risks in the future.
It’s a question pending during a summit meeting of EU leaders starting on Monday, one made all the more pressing by Ukraine’s demand for fast-track accession talks to join the bloc, which may not be decided before another meeting in late June.
Despite pressure to speed up Ukraine’s path, full membership of it or of other countries on the periphery of Europe in either NATO or the European Union is unlikely for many years. But European leaders have already begun to discuss ways to slowly integrate and protect them.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi have both spoken in recent weeks of a new confederation with the European Union, in contrast to the old concept of the core group and the periphery, or “two-speed Europe”, which the new members dismiss as creating a second-class status.
in Speech on “Europe Day”, May 9, in front of the European Parliament, Mr Macron put forward a more structured, albeit still vague, proposal for a new type of arrangement.
“The war in Ukraine and the legitimate aspiration of its people, just like Moldova and Georgia, to join the European Union encourage us to rethink our geography and the organization of our continent,” he said.
Mr Macron presented an overarching vision of a new European political community – an outer circle of European countries, including Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Britain – that would be associated with but not part of the EU.
Mr Macron said such a wider circle of European states would allow Brussels to bring vulnerable countries along Russia’s borders into the European fold more quickly than full membership in the EU, which “will actually take several years, and most likely several decades”.
Such a “political community”, he said, “would allow democratic European countries that believe in our core values a new space for political cooperation in the areas of security, energy, transport, investment in infrastructure and the free movement of people, especially young people.”
The idea of concentric rings or “layers” of European countries, for a “multi-speed Europe” had been proposed many times before, including by former French President François Mitterrand in 1989. Then, however, the idea included Russia; He went anywhere. Mr Macron himself has brought it up before. But now, with Russia out on the march, it’s time to make it a reality, he said.
In February, four days after the Russian invasion, Ukraine formally applied to join the bloc, and in March, EU leaders recognized “European aspirations and the European choice of Ukraine”.
On April 8 in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, told President Volodymyr Zelensky From Ukraine, “Dear Volodymyr, my message today is clear: Ukraine belongs to the European family.” She said, “This is where your path to the European Union begins.”
But even if European leaders decide to start negotiations with Ukraine, the process will be a long one, despite support for immediate membership from countries like Poland and the Baltic states.
On May 22, the French Minister for Europe, Clement Bonn, told French radio: “I do not want to show the Ukrainians any illusions or lies.” He added: “We have to be honest. If you say that Ukraine will join the European Union in six months, or a year or two, you are lying. Perhaps in 15 or 20 years – it takes a long time.”
Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said that given the difficulties, “another path” should be offered to Ukraine in its relationship with Brussels.
Mr. Zelensky firmly rejected any path other than accelerating Ukraine’s full membership in the European Union. But it is unlikely that his demand will be met.
Even opening accession talks with Ukraine is controversial because Georgia and Moldova also applied after the invasion, and other countries have long been stuck in the process. Turkey applied in 1987, North Macedonia in 2004, Montenegro in 2008, Albania and Serbia in 2009. All have started accession negotiations.
Even Bosnia and Herzegovina has applied, and Kosovo wants it.
However, there has been no EU enlargement since 2013, partly because of the problem of integrating already poorer members like Romania and Bulgaria, and because the criteria for accession are too onerous.
The current 27 member states are facing enough economic problems, not to mention that Trying to keep Hungary and Poland in line With European values and the rule of law.
“Countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are fragile and will not get EU or NATO membership soon,” said Claudia Major, a defense analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “If we’re honest, we don’t have security guarantees for them.”
She said that there could be closer relations with Brussels in sectoral areas such as education, electricity networks, trade and the economy, in a kind of partnership without membership. “But I’m not sure that will deter Russia,” she added. “After all, why do Finland and Sweden want NATO? Because there they have the United States.”
The lesson, she said, is that “nuclear deterrence and US capabilities keep us safe in Europe.”
“We can provide all kinds of support to these countries, but not enough to save them,” Major said. “We can’t give them the life insurance they want.”
Ukraine’s fast track is likely to alienate states in the Western Balkans, where the slow and cumbersome process of enlargement has “disappointed many while Russia and China have expanded their influence in the region as a result,” said Julia de Clerc-Sachs. German Marshall Fund in Brussels.
She said proposals such as Mr Macron’s “could help start a broader discussion” among European leaders about how to help and protect those not yet members.
At the same time, they should be careful not to interpret such ideas as the kind of ‘enlargement light’ that would undermine aspirations for full membership and further isolation ‘of countries already disillusioned with the process.
The tougher view is that Mr. Macron is trying to stop the new hopefuls in some permanent pen to maintain French influence in Brussels.
“To this end, he put forward the idea of a ‘Limbo Brussels’ in which candidate countries could cook until doomsday,” wrote Eric Gueger, editor of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. “He calls this ‘European political community’ as complementary to the European Union. This sounds sympathetic and ambiguous enough. But the end goal is clear.
“The debate is just beginning,” said Rosa Balfour, director of the Carnegie Europe Center. “Don’t expect a plan.” She said there were discussions “to gradually integrate these countries or sector by sector”, including entering the single market.
But there are also concerns that some “membership light” will undermine the strong power of internal reform for candidate countries to meet the EU’s strict membership criteria, harming the bloc’s soft power.
Pierre Vimont, a former French ambassador to Washington and a Carnegie Europe Fellow, believes that it would be best to simply open the European Union to all aspirants. But the “real issue,” he said, “is that the 35-member EU cannot move forward in the same way,” which would require serious institutional reform and treaty change to work.
For now, he said, “No one has the answer.” But he warned, “We cannot neglect or forget Russia – we’ve done it for years, and it hasn’t gone well.”
“We need to openly confront this question, come up with new ideas,” he said.
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