Even members of the Commission were taken aback by her move, in which they detected another sign of the increasing “presidential” tendencies of von der Leyen. President Zelensky was ready to seize his chance, and immediately tasked his counselors and the government to quickly fill the documents. On 18 April, he handed over the first completed part; on 10 May, the second. He underlined the speed of Ukrainian reaction along a process that, as he said, “usually takes months and months. But we did everything in a matter of weeks”. This speed was precisely the source of unease in Brussels, and in members states. It was evident that the personal initiative of the EU Commission president, launched in front of the cameras, was trapping everyone. Hence the multiplication of declarations by Zelensky and his close allies that the candidacy cannot be rejected or even postponed, and that Ukraine could be speeding through the membership process as it did for the status of candidate.
As a result, on 11 June, von der Leyen made another surprise visit to Kiev during which body language suggests some constrain behind the usual cheerfulness. She came, she said, to reassess the persistent EU solidarity with Ukraine, despite differences about the level of relations with Moscow and the adoption of a 7th package of sanctions immediately after the agreement on a 6th package. She also wanted to prevent disillusion in Ukraine after unrealistic expectations, to defuse dissatisfaction among candidates negotiating membership for years, and to cool internal EU debates. To that effect, Von der Leyen published an agenda: on 13 June, the European Commissioners will gather for an “orientation” debate about Ukraine’s readiness for candidacy; on the basis of their “recommendations”, the Commission will be able to publish its opinion on Ukraine’s candidate status on 17 June; the crucial discussion will then take place at the 23-24 summit of the heads of states; and on the 27th, the EU will grant or not status of candidate to Ukraine. Then it will send back the hot potato to the 27 members, which have to give separate green lights to ensure a decision by unanimity. Parallelly, EU and Ukraine held numerous meetings at ministerial level to examine Ukraine’s readiness and discuss juridical or technical points.
But there was also a new element introduced by EU – the Commission will examine jointly the preparedness of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to candidates’ status. The two small countries had made their demand as soon as Russia invaded Ukraine, both feeling their vulnerability in front of the seemingly unlimited ambitions of their huge neighbour and faced with the cost of sheltering many refugees. But this last-minute decision raised alarm in Kiev and among members states such as Poland and the Baltic states, afraid that a joint decision might provide an excuse for postponing Ukraine’s affiliation. The fact is that, up to then, all the attention was on Ukraine, and that a point of no return has been reached.
The inclusion of the 2 additional countries raises also a lot of questions that might have been kept a little longer under the carpet.
First it attracts attention on aspects of the Ukrainian situation at the light of the problems of the two others. They are not at war, and not big countries. But Georgia and Moldova are also in political and economic disarray almost since independence, the second being the poorest country of Europe. Parts of their territories are sheltering Russian forces that cannot be simply described as “occupation forces”. Tbilisi and Chisinau want them to leave, but the operation has to be managed carefully to prevent a dangerous vacuum, ideally under EU tutelage. Generally speaking, their “pro-EU” credentials are untested. A majority wants a “Western orientation”, but not necessarily a radical rupture with Russia. They fear that EU’s actions could affect the stability of successive fragile coalitions. Already, on 9 June, EU has indirectly weighted on old tensions inside the Georgian coalition, after much efforts to prevent a new political crisis. It happened after a declaration of EU parliament’s political groups announcing their support for Ukraine and Moldova’s candidate’ status, but putting additional conditions for that of Georgia. They have called for personal sanctions against ruling Georgian party founder billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, inflaming already shacky relation inside the coalition and reviving tensions between the prime minister Irakli Gharibashvili and the president Salome Zuribashvili.
Three left out
Second, the EU decision questions the future of the Eastern Partnership. It selected three partners, but left three out. Belarus where president Lukashenko is still in charge despite sanctions, despite a year of Western conviction that he had no more than a few weeks to succumb under “democratic” revolt. Armenia and Azerbaijan live in a no-war no-peace limbo as no country found a better agreement than the cease fire brokered by Russia.
Third, it obliges EU to confront the “enlargement fatigue”, that has taken new proportions with the Covid crisis and its socio-economic consequences. Everyone knows that admission as candidates is the first step to accession. But there are already many in the pipelines, for years. They will not accept that their membership would take place after that of Ukraine; and no actual member is ready for another “big bang” to open the doors to the Balkans countries or, even less, Turkey.
But Ukrainians still believe that 1/ they will receive the status at the end of June and 2/ that they will be allowed to use the same speedy procedure for memberships that the one they have benefited in their quest for to status of candidates. No wonder that Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna, among others, declared that to be put in the same basket that Moldova and Georgia is Ukraine “biggest concern”.