EU leaders are widely expected to endorse Ukraine as a candidate country to join the European Union.
While mostly symbolic, the status represents a stunning geopolitical victory for the war-torn country, who until earlier this year was never considered a serious contender to enter the 27-strong bloc. It is also seen as a rebuttal to Russia’s coercive attempt to reinstate its lost sphere of influence.
The status is set to materialise in a two-day summit in Brussels, where the war, the food crisis, soaring inflation and Europe’s security architecture are set to top the agenda.
“This is a decisive moment for the European Union,” said European Council President Charles Michel on Thursday morning. “I’m confident that today we will grant the candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova.”
The high-level meeting comes a week after a joint trip to Kyiv by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. The three leaders, speaking on behalf of the EU’s three largest economies, delivered an unmistakable “yes” to granting the candidate status.
The following day, the European Commission published a positive opinion on Ukraine’s application, while putting forward a series of reforms and measures the country needs to adopt by the end of this year, including in the fields of corruption, money laundering and media freedom.
The two factors prompted a flurry of public support for Ukraine’s bid. Countries that were until then considered sceptical about granting candidate status, like Denmark, the Netherlands and Portugal, confirmed their intention to back the move, all but sealing the deal.
The EU’s accession process depends on the unanimity of all member states.
A meeting of EU ambassadors earlier this week revealed no opposition to the decision. Clément Beaune, France’s minister for European affairs, said there was “total consensus” to grant candidate status.
“Accession can be transformative, it can spur reforms and economic development,” said Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin. “Today the EU is sending a message of solidarity to the peopleof Ukraine that you belong to the European family.”
Leaders are also expected to endorse Moldova as a candidate country, while Georgia will be kept on the waiting list until it undergoes important reforms to ensure its political stability.
“The progress of each country towards the European Union will depend on its own merit in meeting the Copenhagen criteria, including the EU’s capacity to absorb new members,” reads an early draft of the summit’s conclusions, obtained by Euronews.
Later this year, the Commission will report back to the European Council on whether the reforms set out for the three countries have been met.
Leaders will also touch upon enlargement when they meet with the six leaders of the Western Balkans – Albania, North Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo –, who have repeatedly complained about the slow pace of European integration in the region.
“The most important [thing] is that the states from Western Balkans will have a good opportunity to become really members of the European Union,” said Chancellor Scholz, ahead of the joint meeting. “They’ve worked so hard, so it’s our common task this something that will happen.”
Bulgaria has blocked the start of accession talks with North Macedonia, which is coupled with Albania’s file, over historical and linguistic disagreements. An attempt by Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov to lift the veto provoked the collapse of the ruling coalition, throwing the process into disarray.
Besides the debate around Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the European Council will discuss on Thursday the latest developments on the war, which after four months shows no signs of abating.
“A peace settlement is not imminent,” said another EU official.
Among the most pressing challenges is the food crisis triggered by Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea.
The international community is rushing to release over 20 million tonnes of grain before famine sweeps over countries in Northern Africa and the Middle East. But the operation depends on the Kremlin’s consent and entails high security risks and complex logistics.
“Russia, by weaponising food in its war against Ukraine, is solely responsible for the global food security crisis it has provoked,” reads the draft conclusions.
Europe and the US are engaged with the United Nations and Turkey to guarantee a safe passage for the grains to reach their destined markets, but no detailed plan is expected to come out from the summit.
Military, financial and humanitarian support for Ukraine will also be discussed, together with an overview of the six package of sanctions adopted so far against Russia.
Although not officially on the agenda, the ongoing Kaliningrad standoff is likely to be brought to the table.
The Kremlin has threatened Lithuania with “serious” consequences after the Baltic country banned the transit of some goods through its territory from Russia to its exclave of Kaliningrad.
The measure includes coal, metals, construction materials and advanced technology, accounting for around 50% of all goods that Kaliningrad imports.
Lithuania says the new checks are a result of EU sanctions, some of which became applicable this week after a transitional period.
“We have always said that the supply to Kaliningrad of essential goods remains unhindered,” said a European Commission spokesperson.
Agricultural and food products, gas supplies, pharmaceuticals and humanitarian aid have been exempted from the long list of sanctions, while many other key products have been blacklisted, such as semiconductors, sensitive machinery, chemicals and catalysts used in refineries.
The Commission will soon publish guidelines on how to implement the penalties.
Russia has called the ban “unprecedented” and “unlawful” and demanded Lithuania to lift it immediately. But Vilnius has refused and tensions continue to rise along the border.
“Some member states don’t want to include Kaliningrad in the final conclusions,” said a EU official, without naming the countries. “I’m not sure they want to embark on a such a detailed discussion.”
Europe’s new community
Over dinner on Thursday, leaders will reflect on Europe’s security architecture and President Macron’s proposal for a “European political community,” a less rigid structure that would be open to non-EU countries like Ukraine, Moldova, Norway and the United Kingdom.
The conversation will be exploratory to test the willingness around the room to move the project forward and define what criteria should be applied for those who want to participate in it.
“Macron’s idea for a European community still needs to be studied and analysed,” said a diplomat from Western Europe. “But this is not an alternative to enlargement.”
Friday’s session will focus on the economy: record-breaking inflation, sky-high energy prices and the worsening cost-of-living crisis. European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde, who recently announced the eurozone’s first interest rate hike in more than a decade, will join leaders.
Countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Belgium keep calling for market intervention to bring down electricity bills, but another group, including the likes of the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Finland, are opposed to forceful action that could potentially bring more disruption into the economy.
Gazprom, Russia’s leading energy provider, has in recent months cut gas supplies to several member states who refused to pay in roubles, a condition imposed by the Kremlin in retaliation for Western sanctions. The gradual cut-offs has led to an increase in coal burning and raised the prospect of gas rationing in the winter.
Also on Friday, leaders will have a chance to take stock of the Conference on the Future of Europe, a year-long citizen-led exercise that produced a series of proposals to reform the EU, including the lifting of the unanimity requirement in certain policy areas, a highly sensitive topic for capitals.
At the end of the summit, European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will give a press conference, joined by President Macron, representing for the last time the French presidency of the EU Council.
The Czech Republic is scheduled to replace France on 1 July.
This article has been updated to include new reactions and developments.
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