Euronews correspondent Méabh Mc Mahon writes about the EU Council’s decision to give candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova and what path lies ahead.
“They are one of us and we want them in”, those were the words of Ursula von der Leyen on 27 February, just three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, changing the world and the EU as we know it.
It was Sunday, the sun was setting and the European Commission president was calm and collected on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont building, but very much in crisis mode after having announced a string of sanctions to try to stop the newly launched war in Ukraine.
Outside, hundreds of Ukrainians were looking up to her office for answers, clutching anti Russia posters, chanting pro-European slogans.
By that Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had officially signed an application for EU membership. An emotional European Parliament plenary session followed where even the live interpreters fought back tears.
Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, followed suit applying for membership on 3 March. Georgia, a small country in the South Caucasus which borders Russia, applied too.
Four months later, at this week’s “historic” EU Council summit, that ironically was meant to zoom in on the Western Balkans EU aspirations, Ukraine and Moldova became official EU candidate states.
Brussels-based Ukrainians took to the streets to celebrate a morale boost after the most unsettling few months of their lives. Children drew posters of the EU flag.
Veteran EU watchers, even those who were reluctant at the speed of this symbolic step, say this will send a strong message to Moscow, as the EU finally speaks with one voice.
“This was a very important geopolitical message from the EU. The guy sitting in the Kremlin never saw Moldova among one of our countries,” Amanda Paul, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, told a panel on Friday.
A complex road ahead
But, once you zoom out from the blue and yellow images of hope for a country at war, and look through the lens, Ukraine and Moldova’s future to EU membership could be long, bumpy and complex. The decision can even be reversed.
“Fundamentally, if things go politically wrong, politically backwards in the applicant countries, in effect, the whole accession process can be put on ice,” Richard Youngs from Carnegie Europe told me earlier this week.
But there will be challenges ahead for Ukraine which is deemed the second most corrupt country in Europe.
I recalled my visit to Western Ukraine recently where I saw locals ride horses and carts, spoke to young people who baked their own bread to get by, and saw up front the difference in infrastructure between EU member state Hungary and its neighbour Ukraine.
“The EU summit is a one-off historic opportunity to get things right,” European Union politics professor Frank Schimmelfennig told me.
Making an announcement and smiling for the camera is one thing, but getting it right is another. Speaking at a post mortem meeting of this June EU summit, policy analyst Corina Stratulat sounded grim.
“I don’t think this summit lived up to the labels of historic or geopolitical. We are far away from the ambitious vision that we need to brave this big and increasingly scary new world we live in,” she said.
But with no concrete plans coming out of Friday’s summit to tackle the energy crisis brewing, and no new date for heads of state to gather, the problems might get kicked into the future and the European dreams of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and not to mention the Western Balkans, might indeed be “put on ice” for many years.
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