BRUSSELS — As Ukraine defends European values and security against a blatant Russian invasion, what obligation do the European Union and NATO have to Ukraine?
The moral answer may be obvious, as European and US governments pledge support for Kiev and pour money and weapons into Ukraine. But the practical answers are complicated, as always, and divide Europe.
Defying all expectations, the European Union has acted swiftly and with authority, providing significant military aid and imposing massive sanctions on Russia. But now it faces a more difficult question: how to tie vulnerable countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to Europe in a way that helps them and doesn’t create further security risks in the long run.
It’s a question that will linger on a summit of EU leaders starting Monday, and one made even more pressing by Ukraine’s demand for rapid accession negotiations to join the bloc, which may not be for another. meeting at the end of June.
Despite the pressure to accelerate Ukraine, full membership of Ukraine or the other countries on Europe’s periphery in NATO or the European Union is unlikely for many years to come. But European leaders have already started discussing ways to slowly integrate and protect them.
President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy have both talked in recent weeks about a new confederation with the European Union, as opposed to the old idea of a core group and a periphery, or a “two-speed Europe”. rejecting newer members as creating second-class status.
But it is Mr Macron who has put forward a more formed, if still vague, proposal for a new kind of settlement, notably in his “Europe Day” speech to the European Parliament on 9 May.
“The war in Ukraine and the legitimate aspiration of its people, like those of Moldova and Georgia, to join the European Union encourages us to rethink our geography and the organization of our continent,” he said.
As is his custom, Mr Macron offered a sweeping vision of a new European Political Community – an outer circle of European states, including Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Britain – linked to the European Union, but not part of it. would matter.
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Such a wider circle of European states would allow Brussels to bring vulnerable countries along the Russian border into the European fold faster than full EU membership, which “would actually take several years, and most likely several decades,” Macron said. .
Such a “political community”, he said, “would give democratic European countries that believe in our core values a new space for political cooperation on security, energy, transport, investment in infrastructure and free movement of people, especially our young people.” .”
The idea of concentric rings or “layers” of European states, of a “multi-speed Europe”, has been suggested several times – including by a former French president, François Mitterrand, in 1989, although then also Russia, and it about nothing. Mr Macron himself has mentioned it before. But now, with Russia on the march, it’s time to make it happen, he said.
In February, four days after the Russian invasion, Ukraine formally applied to join the bloc, and in March EU leaders acknowledged “European ambitions and European choice for Ukraine”.
On April 8, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, said in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, to President Volodymyr Zelensky of 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 open negotiations with Ukraine, the process will take a long time, despite support for immediate membership from countries like Poland and the Baltic States.
On May 22, Clément Beaune, France’s minister of Europe, told French radio: “I don’t want to present any illusions or lies to Ukrainians.” He added: “We have to be honest. If you say that Ukraine will join the EU in six months or a year or two, you are lying. It’s probably in 15 or 20 years – it’s going to be a long time.”
Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg similarly said that given the difficulties, Ukraine should be given “a different path” in its relationship with Brussels.
Mr Zelensky has sharply rejected any path other than accelerated full membership of Ukraine in the European Union. But his demand is unlikely to be met.
Even opening accession negotiations with Ukraine is controversial as Georgia and Moldova also signed up after the invasion, and other countries have long been stuck in the process. Turkey applied in 1987, North Macedonia in 2004, Montenegro in 2008 and Albania and Serbia in 2009. They have all started accession negotiations, with North Macedonia and Albania being considered full candidates for membership.
But even Bosnia and Herzegovina has applied, and Kosovo wants it.
And yet there has been no EU enlargement since 2013, partly because of the difficulties that poorer countries like Romania and Bulgaria already have in integrating, and because the criteria to join are so onerous.
The current 27 member states already have enough economic problems of their own, let alone trying to keep Hungary and Poland in line with European values and the rule of law.
“Countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are vulnerable and will not join the EU or NATO anytime soon,” said Claudia Major, a defense analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “If we’re honest, we don’t have any security guarantees for them.”
There could be closer relations with Brussels in sectoral areas such as education, electricity grids, trade and economy, in a sort of partnership under the membership, she said. “But I’m not sure it would deter Russia,” she continued. “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 American capabilities will keep us safe in Europe.”
“We can provide all kinds of support to these countries, but not enough to save them,” said Ms. Major. “We can’t offer them the life insurance they want.”
A fast track to Ukraine would likely further alienate states in the Western Balkans, where the slow and cumbersome enlargement process has “disillusioned many, while Russia and China have increased their influence in the region as a result,” Julia De Clerck said. – Sachsse of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.
Proposals such as Mr Macron’s “could help spark a broader discussion” among European leaders on how to better help and protect those who are not yet members, she said.
“At the same time, they must be careful that such ideas are not interpreted as some kind of ‘extension light’ that will undermine the pursuit of full membership and further alienate countries already disappointed by the process.
A tougher opinion is that Mr Macron is trying to park new aspirants in some permanent waiting area to maintain French influence in Brussels. “For this he came up with the idea of a Brussels Limbo in which the candidate countries could stew until the doomsday,” wrote Eric Gujer, editor of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. “He calls this a ‘European political community’ as a complement to the European Union. That sounds sympathetic and sufficiently vague, but the ultimate goal is obvious.”
“The debate has only just begun,” said Rosa Balfour, director of Carnegie Europe. “Don’t expect a plan.” Talks are underway, she said, to “integrate these countries more gradually or sector by sector”, including access to the internal market.
But there is also concern that some “membership light” will undermine the powerful power for internal reform of candidate countries to meet the EU’s strict membership criteria, hurting the bloc’s soft power.
Pierre Vimont, a former French ambassador to Washington and a colleague at Carnegie Europe, thinks it would be best to simply open up the European Union to all aspirants. But the “real problem,” he said, “is that a 35-member EU cannot go on in the same way,” and that requires serious institutional reforms and treaty changes to function.
For now, he said, “nobody has the answer.” But he warned that “we can’t neglect or forget about Russia — we’ve been doing that for years and it hasn’t worked out very well.”
“We need to face that question openly,” he said, “and come up with new ideas.”