Ukraine War Forces a Question: How Far East Does Europe Go?

Ukraine War Forces a Question: How Far East Does Europe Go?

BRUSSELS — Ukrainians waved European Union flags when they put their lives on the line in 2014 during their revolution in Maidan Square, in the center of Kyiv, provoked by their desire to draw closer to the West. It was a pivotal moment, choosing Europe over Russia and incurring the Kremlin’s wrath.

Now, fighting a Russian invasion and seeking meaningful help from the European Union, Ukrainians are asking to become E.U. members, and soon. The call is being joined by two neighboring countries, Moldova and Georgia, who also feel vulnerable to Russia and seek to shelter under the E.U. umbrella.

“The European Union is going to be stronger with us,” said President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine via video link from his bunker at a special session in the European Parliament this week. “Prove that you are with us, and you will not let us go.”

The European Union has already done much for Ukraine. In just weeks, the bloc has begun to step forward as a military power as it funnels across millions of euros in aid and arms. Member states are taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees from the conflict.

But the one thing the European Union is not likely to do is speed up its accession process, bend its rules and requirements for joining, or allow Ukraine and others who have urgently raised their hands to enter the invitation-only club jump to the front of the line, even now.

Ukraine was far from being ready to start accession talks even before the invasion. The latest E.U. report on the country’s reform progress, published in December 2020, said corruption and the rule of law remained problematic, despite efforts to improve institutions, especially the courts.

Rapid expansion has never been easy for the European Union. For decades it hesitated on pushing eastward, having had growing pains enough after admitting broad swaths of former Soviet satellite states, not all of them up to snuff on matters of democratic governance and corruption, after 2004 and 2007.

E.U. leaders were also mindful that further encroachment, like that of NATO, into what Moscow once considered its domain was likely to antagonize Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin. Links with Brussels were at the heart of the debate that ended up with the Ukrainian revolution of 2014 and the Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine that followed.

“The policy of halfheartedness toward Eastern Europe was justified by realists in European capitals as a desire not to upset Russia, because upsetting Russia would have caused instability,” said Rosa Balfour, director at the research institute Carnegie in Brussels.

But Mr. Putin’s full-on invasion of Ukraine has shattered virtually every understanding between Russia and the West. Ideas for a new security architecture for the continent have been crushed under the treads of Russian tanks. New spheres of influence are fast being carved out in areas that formerly sat, if awkwardly, on the fence between East and West.

But while there is little doubt that E.U. countries are united in a desire to provide Ukraine meaningful support, allowing Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova into full membership any time soon is virtually impossible, officials and diplomats in Brussels insist.

Even granting them candidate member status soon seems a step too far for the European Union. The bloc’s origins lie in the 1950s with a core group of six nations, and it has now grown to encompass 27. Some argue that’s already too big to sustain a cohesive identity and set of principles, as long-running tensions with members like Hungary and Poland attest.

Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, the E.U. institution that brings together the 27 national leaders, acknowledged that the mere thought was divisive.

“It will be up to us as a European Union to act in accordance with the times. It’s going to be difficult — we know there are different views in Europe,” Mr. Michel said after Mr. Zelensky’s plea. “The council will have to seriously look at the symbolic, political and legitimate request that’s been made. And we’ll have to make the appropriate choices in a determined and clearheaded manner,” he added.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the other major E.U. institution — its executive, the European Commission — also spoke of the symbolism of the moment.

Even before Mr. Zelensky made his speech at the European Parliament, she declared, in an interview with broadcaster Euronews, that Ukraine is “one of us and we want them in the European Union.”

A spokesman for Ms. von der Leyen carefully walked back from her more effusive comments on Thursday. “These are countries that are expressing a wish to join the European Union, which actually shows the success of the European Union as a part of as a project for peace and for prosperity,” the spokesman, Eric Mamer, said. “So, it is obviously welcome that others see the European Union as a successful model and want to join us.”

Joining the European Union is a long, arduous process. To be given candidate status, a country must comply with the so-called Copenhagen criteria, a set of standards relating to its democracy and economy.

But that’s when the hard part starts. There are 35 chapters of accession negotiations, each relating to a policy area in which the candidate country is being asked to make changes — both judicial and practical — to align itself with the European Union standards.

Work on specific chapters can stall for years, and any progress is subject to a constant monitoring of the standards of the candidate country’s court and judicial systems, as well as the quality of its democratic institutions.

Those include rule of law matters such as independent judges, removing corruption and protecting a free and vibrant press. Several current E.U. members, foremost Hungary and Poland but also Bulgaria and Romania, are doing poorly on some of those fronts.

And then there’s the question of the five countries already on the candidate list: Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. Turkey’s application is effectively frozen and unlikely to be completed, but the others have gone through years of reforms and negotiations.

These countries are in the heart of Europe, in the Western Balkans, and have also been courted by Russia, so fast-forwarding other, new applications over theirs is seen as not only unfair but potentially dangerous.

The European Union has long been active in Ukraine, which is part of its Eastern Partnership along with six former Soviet states, including Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. Brussels has eased visa restrictions for Ukrainians and offered large amounts of financial aid and technical advice, as well as regular summits.

But membership is another matter, and a previous president of the commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, speaking with brutal honesty in March 2016, said it would take at least 20 to 25 years for Ukraine to join the E.U. and NATO. Mr. Putin is trying to ensure that it will take much longer.

Experts think that while full membership quickly may not be feasible, Brussels needs to make a gesture of inclusion toward Ukraine and its two neighbors.

“There’s plenty of space to make a powerful gesture without making false promises,” said Ms. Balfour. “What’s not realistic is the expectation of a fast-track accession.”

Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Brussels.

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