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Brussels urged to curb Ukraine’s ‘unrealistic’ European hopes

European hopes

EU member states have warned Brussels against giving Ukraine an unrealistic expectation to quickly join the bloc, ahead of a summit in Kyiv where Volodymyr Zelenskyy is pushing for progress on membership and reconstruction .

Zelenskyy is due to host his European counterparts Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel this week,

where he is expected to push for the country’s EU membership, the use of frozen Russian assets to fund Ukraine’s reconstruction and a mechanism legal to prosecute the Russians for war crimes. .

Senior diplomats in EU capitals fear that unachievable Ukrainian expectations – including EU membership by 2026 – have been encouraged rather than tempered by senior officials in Brussels.

“No political leader wants to be on the wrong side of history. . . Nobody wants to be blamed for not doing enough,” said a senior EU diplomat. “So they tell them anything is possible. ”

In response to the Russian invasion last February, the EU rushed to support Ukraine through military, humanitarian and financial programs, including sanctions against Russia that hit the bloc’s own economies.

The EU has also taken the unprecedented step of making Ukraine an official candidate for membership, despite not meeting the standard requirements.

But while some central and eastern European member states have defended Ukraine’s demands, other northern and western capitals are concerned about how its large poor population and large agricultural sector could be integrated into the EU.

European hopes

French President Emmanuel Macron has been particularly cautious about the speed of Ukraine’s accession, warning in May, before the country was officially nominated as a candidate, that the process could take “several decades”.

The EU leadership adopted an optimistic tone. European Commission President von der Leyen said during a visit to Kyiv in September that “the accession process is on track”.

“It’s impressive to see the speed, the determination, the precision with which you progress,” she added.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and European Council President Charles Michel, second from left
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and European Council President Charles Michel, second left © Ruslan Kaniuka/Reuters

European Council President Michel said this month that “no effort” should be spared to “turn this promise into reality as quickly as possible”.

“Ukraine is the EU and the EU is Ukraine,” he told the Ukrainian parliament.

This rhetoric has created expectations in Kyiv that she deserves special privileges and early entry into the bloc. Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said he was considering a two-year timeline.

“There will be no fast track for Ukraine’s EU membership,” said a second EU diplomat. “There is a risk that rhetoric will clash with reality.”

Several member state officials told the Financial Times that the commission needs to impress on Ukraine that there are huge hurdles before the start of formal membership talks, which themselves can take a decade or more. .

” This gap [between promises and reality] has been growing for some time. And we are getting to the point where it is too broad,”

said a third EU diplomat. “They seem to believe they can just join tomorrow. And that is obviously not the case. »

Von der Leyen and other commissioners will meet Ukrainian government officials as part of the trip, along with the committee chairman and Michel, who represents the 27 member states, who are due to hold a summit with Zelenskyy on Friday.

“We all noted the ongoing reform momentum in Ukraine,” a senior EU official said ahead of the meetings, highlighting, for example, rule of law work and anti-corruption efforts.

Discussions in Kyiv will highlight the need for further reforms, while addressing economic cooperation and the reduction of trade barriers with the EU.

Michel and von der Leyen also played a leading role in calling on member states to explore ways to use proceeds from frozen Russian central bank assets in European banks in rebuilding Ukraine.

“Von der Leyen and Michel could compete on who can be more pro-Ukrainian,” said one of the EU diplomats.

The cost of reconstruction and recovery was estimated at almost 350 billion euros by Ukraine, Brussels and the World Bank last September, and the price has only risen since then, with weekly attacks by Russian missiles and drones that damaged critical infrastructure.

But these calls to deploy the assets have come despite big questions within the commission itself about the feasibility of such a path.

Didier Reynders, the EU’s justice commissioner, told the FT this week that the idea of ​​using Russian government assets was “a very complex issue”. “I would say not only legally but also for the proper functioning of the monetary system,” he said.

The EU is also divided over the format of a potential tribunal to investigate and seek to prosecute the Russians for alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

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