BRUSSELS — Ukraine is one of us. It is marching toward a European future. The future of Europe is, in fact, the future of Ukraine.
It is not yet clear if the 27 E.U. countries will grant Ukraine “candidate status” — an early step on the long path to membership — or some sort of symbolic pre-candidate status, diplomats said. What seems certain is that Ukraine, as it fights for its life, will be let down.
While several E.U. officials, lawmakers and leaders have pressed to expedite Kyiv’s bid, others have tried to temper Ukrainian expectations, stressing that membership might be decades away. In private conversations, some E.U. diplomats conceded that their governments are nervous about starting the accession process with a country at war. A few wondered if Ukraine had a shot at joining at all.
Zelensky on Friday urged the E.U. to pull his country out of the gray area between Europe and Russia. Granting Ukraine candidate status would “prove that words about the longing of the Ukrainian people to be a part of the European family are not just words,” he said in a virtual address to the Copenhagen Democracy Summit.
The gap between the full-throated support from top E.U. officials as they pose for pictures with Zelensky and the quiet skepticism of many E.U. diplomats hangs over preparations for the bloc’s June 23-24 summit — and has not gone unnoticed by Kyiv.
“None of the 27 would say right in the face of the president ‘no,’ but what is happening behind the scenes is clear willingness to put obstacles into the process,” Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine, said on a visit to Brussels.
If it joined, Ukraine would become the fifth-most-populous E.U. nation, and also by far the poorest, drawing subsidies from the rest of the bloc. Its per capita gross domestic product last year was $4,872. The current poorest E.U. country, Bulgaria, stood at $11,683, according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund.
The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, is expected to deliver a recommendation on Ukraine’s status next week. E.U. diplomats said the commission may recommend candidate status but with conditions attached — a compromise unlikely to please Ukraine.
Since the decision is ultimately up to member states, Stefanishyna and other Ukrainian officials have been touring European capitals to make the case that Ukraine needs and deserves candidate status without conditions. “The starting point for any discussion is the legal status of Ukraine,” she said.
The debate about Ukraine’s bid threatens to open a split between the country and its European backers, dealing a blow to Kyiv’s aspirations to break free from Russia’s grasp and integrate more tightly with its neighbors to the west.
It also risks further fracturing European unity on assistance for Ukraine, exacerbating tensions between central European countries and Baltic states, on one side, which support Ukraine’s “swift candidacy to the E.U.,” and Western Europeans, who tend to harbor more reservations about Ukraine’s readiness.
“This is a country at war, and they need a morale boost,” Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said in an interview. “I can imagine what the Russian propaganda is going to do with it.”
Witold Waszczykowski, a former Polish foreign minister who is now a member of the European Parliament, said the E.U. must do whatever it can for Ukraine, including granting candidate status. “We understand that we are next,” he said. “If Ukraine collapses, Russia will be the winner and it will go further west.”
Stefanishyna said Ukrainian officials are working to persuade the holdouts, including “some Nordic countries,” the Netherlands and Germany.
In a visit to Kyiv last month, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stressed that there is “no shortcut” to membership. Privately, German leaders have expressed concern that if they open membership talks with Ukraine now, Zelensky by August will be demanding to be let in immediately, though the process typically takes years, officials familiar with their position said. But the German government has not offered an official view on whether Ukraine should be offered candidate status soon.
“The formal position of Germany is that they don’t have a formal position so far,” Stefanishyna said. “We treat that as a positive signal.”
Joining the E.U. is grindingly complex. A prospective member’s entire body of laws must be picked over and brought into compliance with standards set in Brussels.
The bloc is also well aware that it has far more leverage before a country joins than afterward. Once a country is in, it’s much harder to influence democratic commitments — as backsliding among some E.U. members has made clear.
For Ukraine, decades of corruption present a problem. The country ranked 122 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2021 corruption perceptions index. Though Ukrainian leaders stress progress on this front, several E.U. diplomats said their governments remain concerned.
“Ukraine wasn’t close before and it is not close now,” said one E.U. diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. “But if enlargement is not a direct option, what do you do?”
In a speech to mark Europe Day last month, French President Emmanuel Macron tried to answer that question, sketching his vision of a “European Political Community” that would include an outer circle of democracies that want to be part of the E.U. — like Ukraine, and even Britain after it chose to leave.
“We feel in our heart that Ukraine, through its fight and its courage, is already today a member of our Europe, of our family and of our union,” Macron said.
“We all know perfectly well that the process allowing them to join would take several years — in truth, probably several decades,” he continued. “That is the truth, unless we decide to lower the standards of this accession and therefore completely rethink the unity of our Europe.”
Macron’s proposal hasn’t received a warm reaction within the E.U. And Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba rejected it outright. He called out unnamed E.U. capitals, saying their strategic ambiguity on Ukraine’s status has “emboldened Putin.”
“We do not need surrogates for EU candidate status that show second-class treatment of Ukraine and hurt feelings of Ukrainians,” he tweeted.
Enlargement skeptics are quick to point out that other countries are ahead in line. Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia have all been in membership talks with the E.U. for years. Turkey applied in 1987 and formally remains a candidate, even if it has largely given up.
Some policymakers and diplomats acknowledge that Ukraine stands apart because of the urgency of its situation. But they still are leery of alienating countries that applied earlier.
Ukraine has been pushing for years to further integrate with the E.U., and a free-trade agreement is already in place. But it formally applied for membership on Feb. 28, four days after Russia’s invasion.
On March 1, Zelensky delivered a virtual address to an extraordinary session of the European Parliament. Speaking from a bunker in Kyiv as Russian forces pressed into Ukraine, he said his country was not only fighting for “survival” but “also to be equal members of Europe.”
“Prove that you are with us,” he challenged.
The speech landed with force. An E.U. interpreter was so moved by Zelensky’s evocation of the shelling of Kharkiv that he momentarily lost his composure. By the time the Ukrainian president finished speaking, the audience was on its feet.
At a March summit in Versailles, outside Paris, E.U. leaders were more tentative. Hours of debate yielded a statement that the European Council “acknowledged the European aspirations and the European choice of Ukraine” and would task officials in Brussels with providing an assessment.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen regularly touts the country’s “European future.” In a visit to Kyiv in April, she handed Zelensky a questionnaire that marks the first stage of the candidacy process and offered words of support. “Dear Volodymyr, my message today is clear: Ukraine belongs in the European family,” she said. “This is where your path toward the European Union begins.”
In Brussels, several E.U. diplomats said von der Leyen had overpromised, either because she misjudged the mood among member states or because she hoped to nudge them forward.
More than one diplomat put the odds of candidate status at “50/50.” A few were more skeptical, predicting a half-step, such as the promise of candidate status at some point in the future, so long as conditions are met.
Stefanishyna, the deputy prime minister, said the starting point for Ukraine was candidate status without conditions. “We are not playing the game of promises,” she said.
Birnbaum reported from Washington. Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.