Eastern Europe swings behind Ukraine's EU membership bid

But bloc's leaders and western capitals are sceptical of waiving lengthy application process

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen applauds a speach by Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. EPA
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At least 10 members of the European Union are backing Ukraine’s plea to be admitted to the bloc, but senior figures in Brussels and major EU capitals are cool on the prospects for a fast-track admission.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who renewed his appeal for membership on Wednesday, says the country has proved itself a worthy European ally by resisting Russia’s invasion and wants EU leaders to waive the usually protracted application process.

The strongest supporters of his bid are in Eastern Europe, reflecting sympathy in the former Soviet sphere of influence for countries facing domination by Moscow.

A letter from the presidents of eight countries who joined the EU in the 2000s — Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia — said Ukraine deserved an “immediate EU accession perspective”.

It called on the EU to immediately grant Ukraine candidate status, which is currently held by five other countries, and then begin negotiations on full membership.

These typically take 10 years or more and require a country to meet the EU’s standards on issues such as corruption, the environment and the rule of law, all areas where Brussels has identified issues in Ukraine.

The last country to join, Croatia, entered in 2013 after applying in 2003, while other applications such as those from Turkey and North Macedonia have taken even longer. Politicians within the EU have spoken of “enlargement fatigue” after a series of crises in the bloc.

Croatian President Zoran Milanovic backed Ukraine’s bid on Tuesday and attached a plea for Kosovo, Albania, North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to have their applications accelerated.

“Ukraine is subjected to the aggression of the Russian Federation and we must all provide it with all the necessary assistance, which we would expect if we were in the same situation,” Mr Milanovic said.

Hungary, whose government is normally Russia-friendly but has sided with Ukraine over the invasion, similarly urged EU leaders to put the issue on the agenda.

But any accession would require the consent of the EU institutions and all 27 current members, and although none of these have openly come out against it, some have indicated they are reluctant to tear up the long-standing process.

Mr Zelenskyy directly lobbied German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to get behind the application, while Lithuania made the same appeal to French President Emmanuel Macron.

A vote by members of the European Parliament calling for a push towards candidate status had mainly symbolic value as the leaders of the European Commission and European Council are still equivocal.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said there was no doubt that Ukraine “belongs in our European family” but said there was “still a long path ahead” to full membership.

She suggested the war with Russia would have to end before any membership bid could go forward, with the fate of Ukraine’s government uncertain in the event of a Russian victory.

Council president Charles Michel said Ukraine’s bid would be taken seriously but said opinion was divided among the member states.

And German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Ukraine was part of the “European house” but that a membership bid was “not something that can be completed in a couple of months”.

She said any successful bid would require a “deep and comprehensive transformation process” and suggested Ukraine should receive the same treatment as applicants in the Western Balkans.

An EU evaluation in 2020 gave a mixed verdict on Ukraine’s progress in tackling corruption, with police work said to have improved but few cases resulting in convictions.

The Netherlands, meanwhile, said it was the wrong time to discuss EU membership, while Austria similarly said a fast-tracked Ukrainian accession would not solve the current crisis the country is facing.

From outside the bloc, Turkey said it wanted the “same sensitivity” to be shown to its own long-stalled membership bid as to the application by Ukraine. Britain, which was historically a strong supporter of expanding the EU, is no longer a member.

The discussions are running in parallel to debates around Ukraine's possible membership of Nato. That possibility was one of the main grounds on which Russia claimed to be threatened by its ex-Soviet neighbour.

Updated: March 02, 2022, 9:49 AM