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Ukraine’s hard road to join the European family

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Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: AP

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: AP

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: AP

Taoiseach Micheál Martin is an enthusiastic supporter of embattled Ukraine’s membership of the European Union. Later this week we will learn more about how realistic such membership ambitions are – especially in a time of war.

The shameful invasion of Ukraine on February 24 evoked an admirable response from most European countries, with unprecedented practical and moral support. At their first leaders’ summit after the declaration of war, EU leaders agreed that Ukraine belongs in the “European family”.

Despite such practical and moral EU supports, the government in Kyiv is disillusioned about how far this support will stretch and just how real it is.

Last week, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Olha Stefanishyna visited Brussels and unleashed a broadside, saying EU leaders have to move beyond honeyed words and give Ukraine formal “membership candidate status”.

But the 27 EU government leaders are deeply divided on the issue and many are sceptical about the prospect of according Ukraine membership candidate status for a wide variety of reasons.

Later this week, the policy-guiding European Commission will issue an opinion on Ukraine’s candidature following their formal application, lodged in late February, days after Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded. The Taoiseach will undoubtedly vent his support at an EU leaders’ summit due in Brussels on Thursday of next week when the outcome of the EU Commission’s opinion will be first debated.

Achieving EU membership requires unanimous support and Irish officials know this because this country was twice rejected in the 1960s due to French president Charles de Gaulle’s “Non” to the UK’s membership.

Let’s note also here that the goal for Kyiv is to gain that candidate status. Even if they achieve that goal of getting to the membership start line, there is every chance that gaining full membership would take years and years – if not decades. The real difficulty is that Russia will make considerable political capital out of the failure of Ukraine to get to that starting line.

EU Commission president  Ursula von der Leyen made a surprise visit to the Ukrainian capital last week for talks with their hero president  Volodymyr Zelensky. Ms von der Leyen had raised Ukrainian hopes to the heights back in February, saying the country was “one of us and we want them in the European Union”.

Many EU government leaders have taken a more hard-headed stance, and not just because of the implications of putting a country at war into the membership queue. Clearly, many of the former East Bloc EU member states are keen on the idea.

But there are other vulnerable countries lining up – notably Georgia and Moldova – and their governments would be entitled to fear Ukraine are jumping the queue. There are also serious questions about democracy, transparency and the rule of law in Ukraine long before the Russian invasion.

This issue will require wise counsel and serious discussion. The key aim must be to maximise support for the beleaguered Ukrainian people.

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