Europe says it loves Ukraine but not enough to let them join the club

ROME – Remember February 24, when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special operation” in Ukraine quickly escalated into a bloodbath? It was the first full-scale invasion of Europe since the end of World War II, and the European Union struggled to offer support and promises that increasingly look like they might just be empty.

On April 8, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to Kyiv, where she walked alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy around the corpses of Bucha and promised him a fast track to EU membership. “It won’t be a matter of years, as usual, to form that opinion, but I think a matter of weeks,” she said. “Dear Volodymyr, my message today is clear: Ukraine belongs in the European family.”

Isha Sesay (L) and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (C) speak on stage during Stand Up For Ukraine on April 9, 2022 in Warsaw, Poland.

(Photo by Brian Dowling/Getty Images)

But with the deadline for a meeting approaching at the end of May ahead of a crucial summit next month, some of Europe’s most influential member states have thrown cold water on Ukraine’s membership, which it must be said they worked towards almost two decades ago. Chancellor Olaf Scholz said it would be unfair to other Western Balkan countries to rush a country “like Ukraine” which has also knocked on the door of the euro clubhouse. “There are no shortcuts on the way to the EU,” said Scholz last week when asked about Ukraine. “The accession process is not a matter of a few months or years.”

French President Emmanuel Macron spelled out what Europe might think, saying it would be “decades” before a “candidate like Ukraine” would join the bloc. Macron suggested there needed to be a mini-club-style alliance that would bring the UK back into its folds even after Brexit, even though Ukraine is so badly needed for the crucial perks of support, funding and structural reforms ahead of the war ends at last.

Emily Channell-Justice, director of the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at Harvard’s Ukraine Research Institute, told The Daily Beast she was disappointed but ultimately not surprised by the EU’s reluctance to admit Ukraine. “It’s not that surprising in many ways, because it’s not like Ukraine didn’t have problems with its European future before the war started,” she said. “The war didn’t derail it, but now Ukraine is able to say to the EU: ‘We are basically the ones protecting you all from your greatest threat.’ They have set a great example for the rest of us in so many areas, it’s the least we can do for them.”


German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is pictured behind the reflection of an EU flag on the window of the Chancellery as he awaits the arrival of the Bulgarian President ahead of his meeting in Berlin, Germany, May 16, 2022.

(Photo by John MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images)

She says that even more than the concrete support of EU membership, this is a sign that the EU meant what it said at the start of the war. “There are certain commitments that would potentially be helpful, any kind of symbolic step the EU can take is helpful,” she says. “But some countries are afraid of a complete break with Russia, especially given that Putin is so unpredictable.”

The problems holding many European countries back are twofold. Some countries, notably Italy, Hungary and Germany, are struggling with a viable plan to wean themselves off Russian oil. Italy recently opened a ruble account to ensure they don’t get cut off. The EU also failed to agree on a boycott of Russian oil, a signal that it may be willing to continue doing business with Putin despite his actions in Ukraine.

The other problem for many is the forthcoming membership of six other candidates: Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo, who are ahead of Ukraine in the process. “You have been pursuing intensive reforms for years and are preparing for accession,” said the German Chancellor. “It’s not just a question of our credibility that we keep our promises to them. Now more than ever, their integration is also in our strategic interest.”

Still, not everyone believes that the playing field is level given Ukraine’s particular vulnerability. “What people don’t understand is that this is not a new idea, this is something that many people in Ukraine have wanted since 2004 and the majority of Ukrainians have wanted and worked for since 2014,” says Channell-Justice. “And I think it’s about realizing that it’s not always about how you view the country as a whole, they’ve built a functioning civil society that challenges the elites to do a better job.”

For its part, the EU has indicated that it will not abandon Ukraine entirely, even if full membership is not in the near future. Millions of war refugees were taken in across the bloc like no other war refugees, and billions of dollars in aid were sent in the form of military equipment and cash to pay the Ukrainian army. But – it seems – the help stops here. Europe says it loves Ukraine but not enough to let them join the club


Hung is a Interreviewed U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Hung joined Interreviewed in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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