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Ukraine war: European leaders pour cold water on Kyiv's bid to get EU membership quickly

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By Jorge Liboreiro
EU leaders meet at the Palace of Versailles for an informal summit centred on the Ukraine war.
EU leaders meet at the Palace of Versailles for an informal summit centred on the Ukraine war.   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

EU leaders have rebuffed Kyiv's calls for a fast-tracked accession that would see Ukraine join the bloc in record time.

Ever since the war broke out, Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and his top officials have repeated calls for an accelerated entrance, an unheard-of option that defies the traditionally complex and lengthy negotiations.

Meeting in Versailles for an informal EU summit, the 27 leaders simply "acknowledged the European aspirations and the European choice of Ukraine" and took note of the application that Zelenskyy signed on 28 February.

Member states have already tasked the European Commission with drafting an "opinion" regarding this request. The document is expected to arrive in the coming weeks, although no specific deadline has been given.

"Pending this [opinion] and without delay, we will further strengthen our bonds and deepen our partnership to support Ukraine in pursuing its European path. Ukraine belongs to our European family," leaders wrote in their joint Versailles declaration.

Once the European Commission publishes its opinion, leaders are supposed to vote on whether to grant "candidate" status to Ukraine. The step has to be approved by unanimity and does not guarantee the bid would be eventually successful. After that, the arduous negotiations and the implementation of reforms could begin.

The cold water poured on Kyiv's ambitions reflects a West-East divide within the bloc.

Earlier this month, a group of Eastern member states (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) wrote a letter calling for Ukraine to be "immediately" bestowed with candidate status.

But Western Europe has been less keen.

"Can we open today a procedure of accession with a country at war? I don’t think so," French President Emmanuel Macron said in Versailles. "Shall we close the door and say never? That would be unfair."

Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez had previously said in an interview that accession was a "long" process with "requirements and reforms" to be met.

His Dutch counterpart, Mark Rutte, was even more explicit ahead of the meeting.

"Let there be no doubt about the fact that the Netherlands and Ukraine stand shoulder to shoulder," Rutte told reporters. "But there is not such as a thing as a fast-tracking of accession. It does not exist."

Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki later accused some countries of wanting to "slow down" the process, "like the Netherlands."

Nevertheless, Baltic countries celebrated the summit's declaration as a "green-light" for Kyiv's aspirations.

"A historic night at Versailles. After five hours of heated discussions, EU leaders said yes to Ukrainian euro integration. The process started," tweeted Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda.

"Now it is up to us and Ukrainians to accomplish it fast."

"This is a united signal of support to Ukraine," said Estonian PM Kaja Kallas. "Ukraine belongs to the European family."

EU-Ukraine relations are currently governed by an Association Agreement that deepens political and economic cooperation, a framework that leaders want to use to reinforce the existing partnership.

Under the deal, Kyiv commits to implement a series to reform to bring the country closer to the EU's standards. The country, however, continues to score poorly in international indexes: Freedom House calls it "partly free" while The Economist describes it as a "hybrid regime." Reporters Without Borders says oligarchs' grip on the media is still too "tight."

The Versailles declaration also included a pledge to rebuild Ukraine after the war against the invading Russian forces comes to an end.

"We commend the people of Ukraine for their courage in defending their country and our shared values of freedom and democracy. We will not leave them alone," leaders wrote.

"We are committed to provide support for the reconstruction of a democratic Ukraine once the Russian onslaught has ceased."