ROME—Remember back to Feb. 24 when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special operation” in Ukraine quickly escalated into a bloodbath? It was the first full-scale invasion in Europe since the end of World War II, and the European Union scrambled to offer support and promises that are increasingly looking like they might just be empty.
On April 8, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen traveled to Kyiv where she stepped around the corpses of Bucha alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, promising him a fast track to EU membership. “It will not as usual be a matter of years to form this opinion but I think a matter of weeks,” she said. “Dear Volodymyr, my message today is clear: Ukraine belongs in the European family.”
But as the deadline looms for a late May meeting ahead of a crucial summit next month, some of Europe’s most influential member states have thrown cold water on Ukraine’s membership which—it must be stated—they started working towards nearly two decades ago. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that fast-tracking a country “like Ukraine” would be unfair to other Western Balkan countries which have also been banging on the Euro clubhouse door. “There are no shortcuts on the way to the EU,” Scholz said when asked about Ukraine last week. “The accession process is not a matter of a few months or years.”
French President Emmanuel Macron was more precise in what Europe may be thinking, saying it would take “decades“ for a “candidate like Ukraine” to join the bloc. Macron suggested there needed to be a mini-club-style alliance that would also bring the U.K. back into the fold after Brexit, though stopping short of the crucial perks Ukraine will so badly need in terms of support, funding, and structural reforms when the war finally ends.
Emily Channell-Justice, who heads the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute, told The Daily Beast that she is disappointed but not ultimately surprised at the EU hesitancy on bringing Ukraine in. “It’s not that surprising in a lot of ways because it’s not as if Ukraine didn’t have problems regarding its European future before the war began,” she said. “The war didn’t throw it off track, but now Ukraine is in a position to say to the EU, ‘We are basically the ones protecting all of you from your greatest threat.’ They have set a great example for the rest of us in so many areas, this is the least we can do for them.”
She says that even more than the concrete support EU membership would provide, it would be a sign that the EU meant what they said when the war began. “There are certain obligations that would potentially be helpful, any kind of symbolic move the EU can make is helpful,” she says. “But some countries are afraid of making the complete rupture with Russia, especially given that Putin is so unpredictable.”
The issues holding many European countries back are two-fold. Some countries, especially Italy, Hungary and Germany, are struggling with a viable plan to wean themselves off Russian oil. Italy recently opened a ruble account to ensure they won’t be cut off. The EU has not been able to agree on a boycott of Russian oil either, which sends a signal that they may be willing to continue to do business with Putin despite his actions in Ukraine.
The other issue for many is the pending membership of six other candidates: Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Kosovo, who are ahead of Ukraine in the process. “For years, they have been undertaking intensive reforms and preparing for accession,” the German chancellor said. “It is not only a question of our credibility that we keep our promises to them. Today more than ever, their integration is also in our strategic interest.”
Still, not everyone believes the playing field is level given Ukraine’s particular vulnerability. “What people don’t understand is that this isn’t a new idea, this is something many people have wanted in Ukraine since 2004, and the majority of Ukrainians have wanted and worked for since 2014,” Channell-Justice says. “And I think it is a matter of recognizing that it is not always about how you assess the country as a whole, they have built a functional civil society that challenges elites to do a better job.”
For its part, the EU has indicated that even if full membership isn’t in the near future, they won’t abandon Ukraine entirely. Millions of war refugees have been welcomed across the bloc in a way no other war refugees have been, and billions of dollars in aid in the form of military equipment and cash to pay Ukraine’s army has been sent. But—it appears—the help stops there.