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The Guardian View on the EU and Ukraine: Creating a New Europe Will Take Time

Brussels was right to recommend that accession talks should begin with Kyiv. But the road ahead will be long and complex

Responding to recent talk of “war fatigue” in the west, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy recently acknowledged the gruelling nature of the attritional conflict that has been forced on Ukraine by Vladimir Putin. “Everyone is getting tired,” Mr Zelenskiy said at a press conference in Kyiv last weekend, held jointly with the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen. Nevertheless, he added, he was confident that support for Ukraine in its struggle against Russian forces remained robust.

That view was vindicated on Wednesday, when Ms von der Leyen recommended that the European Union begin membership talks with Ukraine. This was a necessary and much-needed act of solidarity – all the more so at a time when international attention is focused on the tragic events in the Middle East. Ukraine has ended up paying a fearful price for the pro-EU sentiments and aspirations expressed in the Maidan Square demonstrations 10 years ago. The imminent beginning of accession talks with Brussels represents an important symbolic moment. And symbols, when realities are so grim, matter.

Moving beyond them will not be straightforward, although the sense of urgency in the EU’s capital is striking. The commission’s decision – and a similar recommendation regarding neighbouring Moldova – will need to be ratified by EU leaders next month. That is not a done deal, given that Hungary’s Viktor Orbán will be among them. Mr Orbán has consistently undermined European unity following Mr Putin’s invasion, and has threatened to make alleged discrimination against Ukraine’s Hungarian minority a sticking point.

If ratification does take place, the road to membership will be complex and fraught. Following Mr Putin’s brazen aggression, the EU has moved from equivocating on eastwards enlargement to expanding its potential scope well beyond the western Balkans. It is embarking on this geopolitically motivated journey for good reasons, but without much of a map and with many serious obstacles in view.

It is, for example, difficult to see how a future EU with 35 or 36 members could function efficiently if the current principle of unanimity continues in key policy areas. But little progress has so far been made on devising ways to limit the exercise of national vetoes. Then there is the question of money. The budgetary implications of granting membership to a group of much poorer countries will be a hard sell in countries that are now net recipients of EU funds. The accommodation of a huge agrarian economy such as Ukraine’s will also stress-test the durability of the common agricultural policy.

It is unclear whether treaty changes or referendums will be required to effect the far-reaching reforms that will be needed to solve these issues, lending additional uncertainty to the enlargement process. Most fundamentally of all, the status of the EU’s future security obligations to Ukraine, once it became a member state, is not clear. Assuming Ukraine remains outside Nato, it will not be possible to dodge this issue for ever – especially if the renewed threat of a Trump presidency in the United States becomes a reality.

As it must, the EU is doing all it can to stand with Ukraine and offer meaningful expressions of solidarity. But Mr Putin’s unexpected and brutal aggression is obliging it to construct a new Europe and a new geopolitical strategy on the hoof. Amid many other challenges facing it, this may be the most daunting one of all.

Source : The Guardian