Home Brussels Inside Ukraine’s first day as an EU member

Inside Ukraine’s first day as an EU member

by editor

If Kyiv is to join the club, the bloc
will first have to change.

By BARBARA MOENS in Brussels,
sometime in the future

Illustrations by Ricardo Tomás for POLITICO

This is the moment Ukrainians have been fighting — and dying — for. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is walking up a red carpet in Brussels’ Europa building toward his first meeting of the European Council, the forum where the European Union’s leaders hammer out the bloc’s most perplexing problems.

He has been here before, of course, wearing his olive green sweatshirt in solidarity with the Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the trenches — his eyes exhausted from leading his country through an excruciating war. But today, Zelenskyy is wearing a precisely tailored black suit, a spotless white shirt and a black tie. He’s clean-shaved, clearly well-slept and has a twinkle in his eyes. The former Ukrainian actor has time to look in the mirror again.

Zelenskyy is walking the red carpet of the lantern-shaped atrium not as a war-worn, rock star-like guest, but as the leader of a full-fledged member of the EU. “Slava Ukraini,” he says, stopping to address the gathered television cameras. Then he adds with a wink: “Slava European Union.”

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It’s too early to say when — or even if — Ukraine will join the EU. Today, the European Commission will brief EU affairs ministers in Stockholm on the state of play of Ukraine’s progress before EU leaders decide in December on the next steps in the accession negotiations for Ukraine and Moldova. The list of reforms Ukraine will have to deliver is long and well documented. What’s been less examined is how the EU will have to change to accommodate a war-devastated country of more than 40 million people who have risked their lives to become a part of the bloc.

To answer the question of what it will take for Ukraine to join the EU, POLITICO spoke to European and national officials, current and former European diplomats, Ukrainian officials and political and security analysts — including some of the prime players working toward the country’s accession. What emerged was a picture of EU and national officials already grappling with that very question — and a growing consensus: If Ukraine is to join the EU, the EU will first have to change.

“Taking the EU as it is right now … simply, the EU can’t really absorb Ukraine,” said Gérard Araud, a former French ambassador, summing up the prevalent point of view.

Fundamental change

The stars of the EU flag flew over Ukrainian protesters on the streets during the 2014 Maidan Revolution and accompanied Ukrainian soldiers in their trenches. Russia’s full-blown invasion of the country last year pushed the moral case for Ukraine’s membership to the top of the agenda in Brussels. Now the bloc’s leaders are starting to wrestle with what they’ve committed themselves to.

“If a number of countries join — Ukraine, Moldova, but the Western Balkans discussion will follow — some things will change fundamentally,” said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.

The accession of Ukraine would be a moment unlike any other in EU history. The bloc has of course welcomed new members, with the largest expansion in 2004 leading to 10 new members. But this time, the EU would be admitting a country devastated by war with roughly the population of Spain and more land area than any other member.

The decision-making both within the Council and between the three key EU institutions — the European Commission, the Council of the EU and the European Parliament — is already one of the most complicated sausage-making machines in the world. Adding a member like Ukraine wouldn’t make things simpler.

If Kyiv would join tomorrow, it would in theory get proportional positions in the European institutions: its own European commissioner and a number of seats in the European Parliament between Warsaw’s 52 seats and Madrid’s 59. In the Council of the EU, Ukraine would command around 9 percent of the votes, like Poland. 

Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv in 2019, when he was running for president of Ukraine | Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

There would be institutional hiccups. The European Parliament would exceed its limit of 751 European lawmakers, so the limit would have to be lifted or other EU countries would have to give up some of their seats. (Good luck with that.)

More importantly, enlargement risks making the slow European decision-making process even more cumbersome. “Nowadays it’s already difficult,” said a senior national official. “Imagine looking for those compromises with 30 or even 35 countries? Not only will there be more countries around the table, they will also be more diverse and with different national interests.”

The accession of Ukraine and other countries provides an opportunity for institutional change, said Steven Van Hecke, a professor in European politics at the Catholic University of Leuven. “Politically, I don’t see Ukraine joining without a new institutional exercise.” 

In January, Belgium will take on the presidency of the Council of the EU, putting it in charge of coordinating the bloc’s policymaking decisions during the crucial period before the European Parliament election in June 2024. De Croo has already begun mobilizing support behind efforts to prepare the EU for Ukraine’s membership.

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“These discussions will take time,” he said. “We need to start preparing for them so that we are ready when candidate countries are ready as well.”

The Belgian prime minister wants to learn from the admittance of Central and Eastern European countries. The sudden inclusion of new members destabilized the balance of power in the bloc, even as the influx of less affluent workers ignited popular opposition against the EU — most notably in the U.K. Enlargement also laid the ground for institutional conflict, such as Poland and Hungary’s battle with Brussels over the rule of law.

“In a way, we are still struggling a little bit with the consequences of that period,” said De Croo. “So we have to make sure that this time we have done our homework ourselves.”

CAP and spend

If there was a single moment of realization about the upcoming challenge, it arguably took place on May 23 on a ship navigating Portugal’s Douro River.

It was there that Portugal’s Secretary of State for EU Affairs Tiago Antunes hosted his counterparts from Spain, France, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark for the first meeting of the so-called Atlantic group, an informal collection of EU member countries with Atlantic coastlines.

Aboard the steel-built three-masted sailing vessel — the NRP Sagres, the pride of the Portuguese navy — talk quickly turned to Ukraine’s potential membership. “There was a common understanding that we needed to address this topic,” said the senior national official mentioned above, who was present at the meeting. “That wasn’t the case in the months, or even the weeks, before this moment.”

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During the meeting, several top officials raised concerns over what the accession of the former breadbasket of the Soviet Union would mean for the EU’s agricultural policy. Already, Ukrainian grain has caused rifts in the bloc, as countries bickered over whether to extend the tariff-free status for imports, originally granted in a gesture of solidarity.

“What do they expect will happen when Ukraine joins the EU’s single market?” said one EU diplomat. “Not only will the Eastern countries no longer be able to block the grain, Ukraine will also be the biggest beneficiary of the EU’s agricultural subsidies. How will the Polish government explain that to their farmers?” 

If Ukraine were to become a member of the EU tomorrow, it would get by far the biggest chunk of money from the €386 billion Common Agricultural Policy, which rewards countries according to their agricultural area. Its farmlands cover an area larger than all of Italy. And the average farm stretches across 1,000 hectares, compared to just 16 hectares in the EU.

The average Ukrainian farm stretches across 1,000 hectares | Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

“It would mean more or less the end of the Common Agricultural Policy,” said Araud, the former French ambassador. He predicted necessary changes and, as a result, unavoidable political strife. “When we talk about ‘reform’ of the Common Agricultural Policy, it usually means giving less money to farmers,” said Araud. Even the slightest tweak to the CAP is set to send a wave of farmer protests throughout Europe — and hundreds of tractors to Brussels’ Rue de la Loi. 

“It is impossible to assess the impact on the CAP prior to the political outcome of the accession negotiations,” a spokesperson for the European Commission said.

Cost of reconstruction

Then there’s the broader economy. The amounts needed for Ukraine reconstruction are dizzying. The Kyiv School of Economics in March said the damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure alone amounts to $143.8 billion. The war-torn country would have one of the poorest GDPs in the bloc once it joins. 

In addition to any ad-hoc efforts to help Ukraine rebuild, the country’s membership would put massive strain on the bloc’s cohesion policy — funding that flows from richer regions to poorer areas in an effort to put Europe’s countries and regions on a more equal footing.

Ukraine’s admittance would turn some regions from net beneficiaries to net donors. “The question is who is going to pay for that, what will be the contribution?” one senior EU official said. “All those questions take years, sometimes decades, to address.”

A flooded area in Kherson after the Nova Kakhovka dam was bombed | Roman Pilipey/Getty Images

Because of this, it’s unlikely Kyiv would be allowed to join without some reform of the EU’s cohesion funding, which makes up about a third of the bloc’s budget. That debate is already being prepared now by a group of high-level specialists and is set to flare up again ahead of the next budget cycle, running from 2027 to 2032.

Proposals include tightening the links between EU funds and structural and economic reforms, as was done with the pandemic recovery money. Critics of EU cohesion policy regularly complain that some of the cash goes to richer countries. If money is tight, why keep funding countries that can pay for projects themselves? 

The Commission spokesperson said that just like with previous accessions, the EU will at a certain moment “determine the financial framework of a future accession, including which transitional measures such as phasing-in of EU funds should be put in place.”

Eastern tilt

Then there are the geopolitical considerations, as Ukraine’s admission would inevitably tip the EU’s center of balance to the east. Since Russia’s assault on Kyiv, Eastern voices — especially in Poland and the Baltics — have been driving policy like never before. Giving Kyiv a seat at the table would provide that flank of the bloc even more political and institutional weight. 

“When Ukraine hypothetically at some point comes into the EU, the Easternization of the EU would continue, no doubt,” said Kai-Olaf Lang of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Some countries are already pushing back. The Atlantic group was formed in part to look at the discussions “from a Western perspective” the senior official mentioned above said. “We need to rebalance a bit.”

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Germany has already made a reform of the Council’s voting system — specifically more decisions made by qualified majority instead of unanimity — a precondition of Ukraine’s membership. Demands for other institutional reforms are sure to follow.

“The EU has always managed to move ahead in challenging moments. Now, once again, it is time to act,” the EU’s foreign affairs ministers from Germany, Benelux, Romania, Slovenia and Spain said recently.

Kyiv is acutely aware that countries that risk seeing their funding or power diminish might not see its potential membership in purely rosy terms.

The ties between Ukraine and Poland in particular date back centuries said Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna. “Ukraine has a huge, extremely strong bond with Poland historically,” she added. “Ukrainians will never forget it was Poland who opened its border, together with other neighboring countries, as of the first minute of the Russian aggression and helped our people to survive.” 

At the same time, Stefanishyna stressed it was important to make clear Poland is not Ukraine’s big brother. Ukraine has “huge friends and partners” across the EU, she said, pointing specifically to France and Germany.

Taras Kachka, Ukraine’s deputy minister of economy, said Ukraine was already drawing lessons from the tensions its grain exports had caused, especially in neighboring countries like Poland. “This is like a stress test for all of us — for us, the Commission, for Poland — on how we will frame the further negotiations,” Kachka told reporters earlier this month in Brussels.

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Looming over all the other challenges will be security. The hot war between Kyiv and Moscow will have to come to an end before Ukraine would be allowed to join. But it’s not impossible that the two sides will continue to make claims to the same territory — or even that Russian troops will still occupy a part of the country. (Cyprus, with the unresolved dispute over the north of the island, provides a precedent.)

Whatever the state of the conflict, Ukraine’s membership would almost certainly change the EU’s security posture, with Kyiv joining Warsaw in insisting on strong ties with the United States and NATO.

The known unknowns are endless, said Maria Popova, a professor at Canada’s McGill University. Will the U.S. continue to support Ukraine? Will there be a total victory or a frozen conflict? What are the conditions of a cease-fire? How will Russia react to a potential loss of the war in Ukraine? Will Ukraine, apart from joining the EU, also join NATO? “To avoid further conflict, lines will have to be clearly drawn,” said Popova.

Brussels, sometime in the future

As night falls over Brussels’ Parc du Cinquantenaire in the EU Quarter, Zelenskyy picks up the diary he has started since the war ended. Being no stranger to vanity, he hasn’t missed the comparisons some have made between him and Winston Churchill. Like the wartime British leader, Zelenskyy wants to tell his version of events — and his role in them.

The way leading up to this day has been steep, he writes, as there were always institutional and political reasons to keep him in the waiting room longer. But the actor who once played a president on TV never lost faith. His prose tips into the purple, as he describes historic moments leading up to this, stretching as far back as the marriage of Anna Yaroslavna, a princess from Kyiv to the French King Henri I in the Reims cathedral in 1051. 

Ukraine’s admission would inevitably tip the EU’s center of balance to the east | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

The Ukrainian leader doesn’t shy away from quoting Churchill himself. In 1946, the former U.K. prime minister argued for the creation of a European family to ensure peace and prosperity in the region. Some 80-odd years later, in the aftermath of the biggest European conflict since World War II, the Continent is once again growing stronger out of the devastation of the war, Zelenskyy argues.

The Ukrainian president closes his diary, looks out on the Cinquantenaire arch, illuminated in blue and yellow for the occasion, and picks up his phone. 

It’s time to brief Brussels Playbook.

Lili Bayer, Douglas Busvine, Jakob Hanke Vela and Suzanne Lynch contributed reporting.

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