With wary eye on Moscow, European Union opens door to Ukraine
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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is opening the European Union’s doors to Kyiv. Other candidate countries are clinging to its coattails. Joining the EU would take years, but the process would redraw the European map.
The vision is audaciously ambitious. It will depend significantly on how and when the war ends, since it would be hard to implement unless Ukraine regains control over all its territory.
Yet, with a rare show of urgency, EU leaders this week are embarking on a series of meetings to decide on the first steps toward making it a reality – possibly including the start of accession talks with Kyiv by the end of this year.
In the Spanish city of Granada, EU members met Thursday with all their neighbors in the 47-member European Political Community, before an informal EU leaders’ summit meets there on Friday.
The fact that a major eastward expansion is now on the EU’s agenda is a direct result of Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
And it underlines another reality: While Washington has been the indispensable leader of a united Western response to Mr. Putin’s invasion, the war itself is happening on European soil. It is the largest armed conflict on the continent since World War II.
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As with that world war and the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the Ukraine conflict looks certain to leave Europe’s political alignment unrecognizably different.
The EU’s own roots lie in the post-World War II division of Europe, which left the Soviet Union controlling its eastern states. It began as a narrow coal-and-steel agreement between historic enemies Germany and France, part of a wider U.S.-backed effort to promote cooperation, economic development, and a lasting peace in Western Europe.
In the decades that followed, the Franco-German partnership grew into a thriving community of more than a dozen European countries, grounded in trade and economic cooperation but also increasingly in a shared democratic identity.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the group expanded again, but at a decidedly deliberative pace. It took 15 years to begin adding nearly a dozen former Soviet states.
The hope was that EU membership would not only bring these countries economic benefits but also reinforce their commitment to a democratic future.
That second goal has proved tricky. The new member states have indeed prospered, and most have integrated politically as well. But two former Soviet satellites, Poland and Hungary, are now under governments that openly espouse “illiberal democracy,” restricting minority rights, independent news media, and the rule of law.
Until now, that cautionary tale has dampened enthusiasm in many European capitals for the prospect of further expansion. More than a half-dozen other former east-bloc states have been kept waiting in line for EU membership for over a decade.
The new mood underscores how dramatically the Ukraine invasion has altered EU thinking.
For years, the EU had been actively engaging with the Kremlin. EU states – especially Germany, the bloc’s leading economy – had come to rely on Russian imports for much of their energy. That link is all but severed now, and it is hard to see how it might be restored.
On the political front, in an even more fundamental rupture, the EU has for the first time earmarked aid, including military supplies, to a country at war, Ukraine.
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And EU foreign ministers this week traveled to Kyiv for their first-ever joint consultation meeting abroad. They met President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ahead of this week’s initial consultations in Granada on admitting Ukraine and the other Eastern European candidate countries.
There remains a raft of practical issues still to be worked out within the EU before new members could be admitted. One that could prove especially complex is how the additional budgetary costs would be shared among existing member states – any one of which, under current EU rules, could veto the expansion.
And the current target date is 2030, seven years away.
But the main challenge is to learn the lesson of the last EU expansion to the east – that economic prosperity does not automatically translate into a democratic ethos.
Whether Hungary or Poland will yet reembrace the EU’s democratic mainstream remains unclear. In Poland’s case at least, the start of an answer could come soon, in a fiercely contested national election on Oct. 15.
But EU leaders are hoping that the new planned expansion will redraw more than the continent’s postwar economic map.
The aim is to answer Mr. Putin’s invasion with a widened family of European democracies.