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For the first time, Ukraine and the European Union are marking Europe Day, that celebration of “peace and unity,” together. Don’t let anyone be fooled too much, though.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the EU’s executive branch, made a special trip to Kyiv on Tuesday to deliver the warm words of common destiny after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that his nation would from now on “celebrate Europe Day together with all of free Europe.”
More than a year into the war with invading Russia, Ukraine wants to badly join the bloc as an essential part to anchor its future in the Western world. “Europe Day,” when the 27 current members celebrate their bond as one, also shows how far that moment is still off.
Next month, it will be one year already since the EU nations granted Ukraine candidate status, lavished the nation with praise, boosted it with aid and military support and sanctioned Kyiv’s enemy Russia with ever more sanctions. Some leaders often dress in the blue and yellow of Ukraine’s national flag and “Slava Ukraini,” which means Glory to Ukraine, ends all so many EU speeches.
Yet, frustration on the Ukraine side is evident, because the beginning of membership negotiations is still out of sight. Weary and hoarse, dressed in army olive-drab, Zelenskyy visited the Netherlands last week with a heartfelt plea for a “positive assessment” to start the talks.
“We do all our best during the war. We do all the reforms what we have to do,” he told the host, one of the original six EU members dating back to 1958.
Time, however, is an extremely flexible concept in the EU, and patience an essential one.
“I am absolutely impressed by what the president’s team is doing,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, with Zelenskyy standing beside him. “Fighting a war against Russia and at the same time making concrete steps in terms of clearing the way in terms of this whole process towards EU accession.”
Then he fell back on the time-set mechanics of the EU, which foresees the next assessment in about a half-year, in October. All this to a leader who is counting in weeks and months when his nation might be on the road to victory — or ruin.
The best advice, though, is for Ukraine to stay the course.
“A promise has been made and in essence it is now in the hands of Ukraine. The EU cannot postpone things forever,” said Ghent University Professor Hendrik Vos, an expert on EU decision making.
But unexpected things can happen, as suddenly overflowing cereal silos in several eastern EU nations proved early this spring. To help Ukraine export its grain, sunflower and other farm produce after Russia closed off the Black Sea route, the EU lifted trade restrictions to give a free passage through the bloc and hopefully on to needy world markets.
Yet in neighboring nations like Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, stocks built up, prices plummeted and that extremely vocal and influential group of voters — the EU’s 10 million farmers — started grumbling, indicating that membership promises are about much more than just sentimental shows of support.
“Of course we have solidarity with Ukraine,” said Christine Lambert, the president of the COPA EU farmers union, “but there are also significant economic aspects to this,” adding that “it’s sort of creating a hole in our budget. It will result in problems and farmers can’t bear these problems alone.”
Apart from making sure that France and Germany never go to war again, the founding principles of the EU also included avoiding hunger in the bloc in the wake of World War II. It allowed farming to take on an exceptionally important role in EU policies and even now it takes up almost a third of the EU’s designated budget.
The war and climate change have put EU farmers increasingly in a squeeze and taking in — and on — a nation like Ukraine, which is historically seen as the breadbasket of Europe, would be especially challenging.
Before the war, Ukraine still had a major stake in the global market of wheat, barley, corn and sunflower oil. Farming accounted for more than 40% of exports.
Opening up to such competition strikes fear in the hearts of many farmers, especially if it comes within a few years. Lambert pointed out how EU farmers need to meet tough environmental and social rules, which Ukrainians so far don’t have to comply with.
Once Ukraine joins, it will in principle have the whole market of the current 27 nations at its disposal, but it will also need to abide by EU rules. And Vos said that goes right down to the size of chicken battery cages to meet animal welfare standards.
“Farmers will be saying they don’t want unfair competition from big Ukraine chicken farms that don’t have to play by the rules,” Vos said.
And Ukraine will only be able to join if it gets major financial aid from the current members to rebuild its nation and upgrade to EU standards. It will turn many of the EU nations that now get money from EU coffers into net contributors. Little wonder many in the EU push any membership date into the unspecified future yonder.
“Many years. We’ll need that time to see that obligations are satisfied,” Lambert said.
Such considerations from a small group of stakeholders won’t stop the groundswell of history though. In the EU’s successive sweeps of expansion, short-term financial losses never stood in the way in the end.
When the Iberian Peninsula wrested itself free from dictatorship during the 1970s, poor and needy Spain and Portugal were embraced in the EU a decade later despite the cost.
When the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the EU took in eight eastern nations in 2004, also at a major cost to the existing members.
Each time, talks on nitty gritty issues went on deep into countless nights but eventually compromises were found — more money was given to grumbling members, sometimes long transition times imposed.
Russia’s war in Ukraine could well be an equal watershed in EU history.
“At a certain point there is no way back. The groundbreaking decision has been taken. There can be incremental talks about money until the end. But they won’t stop it,” Vos said.