The Taoiseach insists Ireland will never deny another aspiring EU member access to this prosperous group of nations in which “people’s lives can be transformed”, just like Irish people’s experience since 1973.
But the reality surrounding Europe’s efforts to expand beyond a bloc of 27 countries is now rather more complicated.
Credit where it is due. Micheál Martin was a strong advocate for Ukraine getting membership candidate status before many of the heavy-hitting EU governments came on board with the idea. He thus welcomed EU leaders’ move to give the embattled nation and hard-pressed Moldova this status yesterday.
Mr Martin said Ireland can never oppose another country seeking EU membership.
He said Ireland’s move to join the European Union 50 years ago was the “most transformative development in modern Irish history”. He also argued that, even though the Ukrainian people were suffering a “most terrible war”, their move towards the European Union can be equally transformative, spurring on reforms and economic developments.
“I always cannot comprehend how we could ever refuse accession to other member states,” the Taoiseach said. He said he regretted there was not more progress in bringing the six countries of the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – closer to the EU.
Many other leaders will agree with the Taoiseach’s view that the only real formula for European peace is centred on prosperity and EU membership. But the case of the six Western Balkan nations – whose hopes of advancing EU membership are going nowhere – shows just how hard it now is to become a member of the European Union.
The last country to join was Croatia, in 2013. The screening processes and staged tests, and especially the need for unanimous candidature endorsement by existing member states, sets the bar very high. It should be noted that the cases of Ukraine and Moldova could take decades to process, and the symbolic morale boost could be short-lived.
We must also note that the grant of membership to Ukraine, with 41 million people and a major agricultural economy, would seriously alter relative relationships in the EU.
That is why the summit chairman, Charles Michel, has urged the leaders to begin discussions on how to frame other relationships with non-EU European neighbour nations that stop short of full EU membership.
This is based on an idea launched by French president Emmanuel Macron last May 9 in Strasbourg at the close of a formal review on the future of Europe.
President Macron’s idea envisions a political community in the neighbourhood of the EU, without full membership but entailing a political rapprochement, practical co-operation on projects and what amounts to partial integration into the EU. Germany has also come on board with the idea.