German Chancellor Olaf Scholz rolled into the courtyard of Kyiv’s Mariinskyi Palace in a black Toyota SUV, right after Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and closely followed by French President Emmanuel Macron. They were greeted at the entrance by a bleary-eyed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, wearing his trademark olive green T-shirt as the world has come to know him in recent months.
A handshake, a brief exchange: Zelenskyy spoke and Scholz nodded. The chancellor was carrying his worn briefcase, which he set down on the ground while greeting the Ukrainian leader, and a soldier immediately picked it up for him. For the group photo, Macron, Zelenskyy, Draghi and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, who was also in attendance, let their arms fall to their sides. Only Scholz kept his hands folded in front of his belly, giving the appearance of unease.
There is indeed a lot at stake. Just five days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Zelenskyy made it abundantly clear what he expected from the EU. "We are fighting also to be equal members of Europe," he told the European Parliament via video link on March 1, his face looking down at the representatives from screens set up in the Brussels plenary hall. "So do prove that you are with us. Do prove that you will not let us go. Do prove that you indeed are Europeans." The parliamentarians and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gave him a standing ovation.
On Thursday, Zelenskyy came one step closer to his goal of quickly leading his country into the European Union. The three largest economic powers in the bloc assured him that they supported Ukrainian accession.
It was the primary message from this meeting, one delivered by all four visitors at the ensuing press conference held in the bucolic park attached to the presidential palace. "Today is an historic day for Europe," intoned Draghi. EU candidacy is the "key to the establishment of a strong and lasting protective shield," said Iohannis. "The four of us are in favor of immediate candidate status for Ukraine," Macron agreed. And Scholz said: "Ukraine belongs to the European family," even as he remained reticent on the issue of weapons.
The Ukrainian president emphasized his gratitude, saying he was "very satisfied." But it was likely clear to him that his guests didn’t mention what is perhaps the most important aspect of the road to the EU: the conditions that Brussels will potentially link to candidate status. Those conditions, though, will be decisive in determining whether Ukraine will become a candidate soon, or only at some point in the distant future. Scholz hinted at such an eventuality when he spoke of an EU path "with plenty of prerequisites."
The trip to Kyiv gave the leaders an opportunity to smooth over a number of splits and disagreements, in full knowledge of just how divided Europe really is on the issue. Countries like Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and Denmark have significant reservations when it comes to rapidly accepting Ukraine into the EU. For Poland and the Baltic countries, by contrast, the process couldn't go fast enough. As such, Germany, Italy and France must play the role of mediator, a reality the leaders discussed and agreed on during their train trip from Poland to Kyiv, sitting together in a lounge car for more than two hours, speaking at length and, it is said, enjoying more than a little wine. A train journey can also bring people together.
But the harmony isn’t likely to last long. Zelenskyy’s demand for rapid EU accession plunges the bloc into a dilemma. An accelerated acceptance procedure for Ukraine could only work if the EU were to ignore a long list of its own rules, which is considered a virtual impossibility. Furthermore, such a move would almost certainly alienate countries in the Western Balkans that have been waiting in vain for EU membership for years.
However, were Brussels to slam the door on Ukraine right in the middle of the war, it would be akin to a declaration of geopolitical bankruptcy of the EU.
As such, it is considered likely that EU heads of state and government, at their summit in Brussels late next week, will open the door to candidate status for Ukraine, Moldavia and Georgia, but will probably link the process to strict conditions. Ultimately, in fact, the visit of Scholz, Macron and Draghi to Kyiv did little to clarify the EU’s position, particularly since the trio have had trouble agreeing on the details – not to mention the other 24 EU member states.
Of the three, Macron is considered to be the greatest skeptic. To the displeasure of the government in Kyiv, Macron said recently that Russian President Vladimir Putin should not be overly humiliated and that the Ukrainians will have to negotiate with him at some point in the future. In a Europe Day speech in the European Parliament, Macron said that Ukraine "is already today a member of the heart of our Europe," only to then say that "the process allowing them to join would take several years – in truth, probably several decades."
Draghi, meanwhile, is the trio's most enthusiastic supporter of providing Ukraine with a clear path to accession. Indeed, EU diplomats now believe that Italy has joined the camp of Poland and the Baltic countries, which have been most vehement in demanding that Ukraine be granted candidate status.
And Scholz? He’s somewhere in the middle, as could be seen in Kyiv, where the German chancellor couldn’t resist reminding Ukraine of the rules: "For accession to the European Union, there are clear criteria that all candidates must fulfill," he recited. He doesn’t believe that accelerated proceedings are possible.
Ukraine, though, believes it has earned unconditional candidate status. On Thursday, Zelenskyy said that his country has "earned that right." The human rights and democracy activist Oleksandra Matviichuk agrees. "In this war, Ukraine is fighting on the side of freedom against authoritarianism, and it is fighting for Europe." As such, she says, the EU has no choice but to support Kyiv by granting it candidate status. "Anything else would be a victory for Putin." Furthermore, she says, the status is extremely important for the country’s democratic development.
EU leaders together with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy in Kyiv on ThursdayFoto: Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL
Zelenskyy’s demands have not been universally popular. The Ukrainian president is "the Justin Bieber of international politics, a popstar, a TV series hero," says a diplomat from a country in Western Europe. "We are all extras in a series that he wrote himself." Germany, in particular, the diplomat continues, runs the risk of one day being accused by Zelenskyy of being responsible for Ukraine’s defeat in the war.
In Berlin, meanwhile, officials are trying to play down the debate surrounding Ukraine’s EU ambitions. "Candidate status is primarily a political-psychological term that has no legal dimension," say sources close to the government.
That may be true in a formal sense, but the EU itself has lent significant meaning to the term by presenting candidate status over the years as a reward for reforms – without ever being particularly precise about when the reward will be bestowed.
It is a principle perhaps best illustrated by the example of North Macedonia. The country submitted its application for membership in the EU fully 18 years ago, back when it was still called Macedonia. First, Greece demanded that the country of 2 million change its name to North Macedonia, and now it is facing hurdles placed in its path by the Netherlands and Bulgaria. The country fulfills all accession requirements to a T and has been hoping for almost an entire generation for movement on its path to the EU – and now must watch from the sidelines as it is passed by a Ukraine that is leveraging its status as a war victim.
Other Balkan countries have had experiences similar to that of North Macedonia. Montenegro and Serbia each had to wait two years after receiving candidate status for accession negotiations to begin. Albania is still waiting. And neither Kosovo nor Bosnia and Herzegovina are even candidates yet. "The prospects of the Balkan countries are sometimes brighter, sometimes dimmer," says one EU diplomat. "Right now, it is completely open."
The fact that the Ukrainian application was processed within just a few months triggered no small amount of anger in the Balkans. "It is an impropriety, if not an obscenity, how the EU is showering its attentions on the new wunderkind Ukraine," says a source close to Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. Since the expansion promise delivered in Thessaloniki in 2003, there have been "numerous vicious fouls" committed against the Balkan countries, the source says.
The most recent proposal from Macron, that of establishing a "European political community" as an additional step short of full EU membership, apparently hasn’t improved the mood. Political scientist Vedran Džihić says the frustration extends across the Western Balkans. "People in North Macedonia and Albania have grown more and more tired. Not to mention Bosnia and Herzegovina, where faith in an EU future has long since been buried." It is a situation that provides China with an opportunity to establish a foothold in Europe, and Beijing has already established close cooperation with Serbia.
Disappointment with the EU has also manifested itself in the region in the form of pro-Russian solidarity. That support, says Marko Trosanovski, president of the Skopje-based think tank Institute for Democracy Societas Civilis, "is largely a result of the frustration over the European expansion process."
As such, the Western Balkans more likely serves as a warning for Zelenskyy. He doesn’t want to join the EU at some point in the future, but as rapidly as possible. And he wants that path to be opened to his country without reservation.
But it is doubtful that he will get what he wants. When Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently met with Zelenskyy in Kyiv, conditions relating to Ukraine’s potential candidacy status were a primary focus. For the Ukrainians, an offer of the kind given to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2019 would be the worst of all worlds. The Commission handed the country a list of no fewer than 14 reforms that it must first implement – which still haven’t been fulfilled.
As such, Zelenskyy has taken an aggressive approach when it comes to doubts about his country’s EU-readiness. Questions about Ukraine’s anti-corruption effort, a statement recently said, were based on "incomplete information about the situation in our country." The Ukrainian anti-corruption infrastructure, the statement claimed, was even superior to that in many EU member states. Furthermore, Ukrainian steps in support of the rule of law were taken "for us in Ukraine" and "were in no way connected" to the country’s EU aspirations.
Ukrainian troops firing a French howitzer in the DonbasFoto: Aris Messinis / AFP
That approach, though, could provide ammunition to those who want to block Ukraine from being granted candidate status. On the one hand, a functioning system rooted in the rule of law is among the most important criteria for EU accession. On the other, the situation in Ukraine is far less rosy than Zelenskyy claims.
In the global Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International, the most recent version of which was released just before the Russian invasion, Ukraine is in 122nd place, between Niger and Zambia and not far ahead of Russia. "Grand corruption and state capture are still widespread in Ukraine," wrote the European Court of Auditors in a 2021 special report. Tens of billions of euros are lost annually as a result of corruption, the report noted, while 20 years of reform assistance from the EU has been ineffective. The Court of Auditors was also critical of the Commission, writing that it has frequently interpreted the situation in Ukraine "too loosely," which has led to "over-positive assessments."
The Commission is again being pretty positive this time around. Even at Zelenskyy’s very first European Parliament appearance on March 1, Commission President von der Leyen said that there could be no doubt "that a people that stands up so bravely for our European values belongs in our European family." It was, she emphasized, "a moment of truth for Europe." The tone had been set.
The Commission has since said that Ukraine already fulfills most of the "Acquis," the roughly 100,000 pages of legal requirements EU members must adhere to. And Zelenskyy’s chances of achieving the rest, Brussels says, aren’t bad.
The Zelenskyy government’s EU ambitions don’t just enjoy significant support from the Ukrainian population. Much of the world is also interested in investing in the reconstruction of the country once Ukrainians complete the necessary reforms and successfully defend their independence.
And that, too, could help explain von der Leyen’s enthusiasm. She even ensured that Ukraine had significant support from Brussels when it came to filling out the application for accession to the EU. That assistance meant that Kyiv was able to complete the 1,000-page catalog of questions the record time of less than one month.
Even before the Commission presented its assessment of the membership applications of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia this week, it had already been considered a certainty that it would endorse candidate status for all three countries, but with strict conditions attached. That will likely mean that the three countries will achieve official candidate status at different times. The final decision on candidate status, after all, is made by the member states. The Commission's recommendation, sources said, would be worded in such a way that EU leaders would still have wiggle room to decide at the summit in Brussels at the end of next week exactly how they want to proceed.
It is by no means certain how things will turn out at the summit, because the concerns are as numerous as they are varied, making the situation difficult to predict. In the Netherlands and France, but also in Berlin, there are fears that the EU – which can only make unanimous decisions in areas such as foreign, security and financial policy – would ultimately become paralyzed if it were to accept Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and, possibly, the six Western Balkan countries that have been seeking membership for years. "The EU needs to reform before several new member states can be admitted," says one diplomat.
A number of other countries consider corruption and a weak rule of law in Ukraine to be significant problems. They see Hungary and Poland as cautionary examples of how even countries that have fully gone through the complex accession process can drift toward autocracy.
Meanwhile, some southern European countries, especially Portugal, fear financial losses. Southern European countries already feel disadvantaged compared to Eastern Europe in the distribution of funds, and the admission of half a dozen new members would divert even more EU funds to the east. In a recent interview, Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa said that granting candidate status wouldn’t solve any of Ukraine’s pressing problems and could instead raise "false expectations."
Yet others, especially Austria, have warned of the fatal signal that preferential treatment of Ukraine would send to the Western Balkans. It’s a concern that is shared in Berlin. If Ukraine were to be granted candidate status, "this could cause great frustration in the Balkans as long as there are no positive signals for the Balkan countries at the same time,” say sources in the German government.
Chancellor Scholz in Irpin: What to do about Ukraine?Foto: Viacheslav Ratynskyi / REUTERS
Meanwhile, some southern European countries, especially Portugal, fear financial losses. Southern European countries already feel disadvantaged compared to Eastern Europe in the distribution of funds, and the admission of half a dozen new members would divert more EU funds to the east. In a recent interview Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa said that granting candidate status wouldn’t solve any of Ukraine’s pressing problems and could instead raise "false expectations."
Yet others, especially Austria, have warned of the fatal signal preferential treatment of Ukraine would send to the Western Balkans. It’s a concern that is shared in Berlin. If Ukraine were to be granted candidate status, "this could cause great frustration in the Balkans as long as there are no positive signals for the Balkan countries at the same time,” say sources in the German government.
Meanwhile, the government in Kyiv is seeking to placate critics by downplaying the significance of candidate status. It does "not automatically mean that Ukraine will join the EU,” stresses Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk. He also said there was "no guarantee that Ukraine will be accepted as a member state" Still, he said, a positive decision by EU leaders would "set in motion an important process” for his country to do its "homework" on the road to the EU.
Kyiv has even signaled that a conditional candidacy status would be acceptable if necessary. This would be a step backward politically, but not a disaster, according to sources in diplomatic circles in Ukraine. That sounds quite a bit different from what Zelenskyy has said about the matter so far. Only a few days ago, he said that Ukraine’s accession was "about the whole European project – whether it has a future as a really strong union."
However, it’s also possible the Zelenskyy could get even less than conditional candidate status at the summit – he could wind up with nothing at all. "A clear no from the European Council on candidate status for Ukraine is unlikely, but it can't be ruled out completely," says one senior EU diplomat. A single EU leader – say, Viktor Orbán, who has recently been extremely reserved on Russian sanctions – could use his veto to torpedo a summit decision. "That would be a disaster for Ukraine and a loss of credibility for the claims of EU member states that they stand up for common European values on their own continent," says an EU official.
Ukraine is counting on Chancellor Scholz to play a major role in preventing such a disaster. As a leading EU member, Germany "has a critical role to play" in bringing Ukraine closer to Europe, says Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš has also sought to flatter Berlin. In the Baltics, he says, people have been saying for years that Germany should lead more strongly, which in this case means pulling Ukraine closer to the European Union. Kariņš doesn’t believe there is any alternative. In Europe’s east there is no longer any middle ground after Putin’s invasion, the Latvian leader says. Either you are democratic, he says, and then you should be part of the EU. Or you will be part of a Russian empire that Putin wants to recreate.
The result is that much is hanging on the decision as to whether to grant Ukraine official candidate status. Whether, for example, EU leaders are able to breathe life into the "strategic sovereignty" and "global political capability" that they love to tout in their speeches, often triggering ridicule from other countries. Whether it has the strength to absorb a country of 40 million people with rich natural resources and vast agriculture, even if that process takes many years – and whether it can reinvent itself. An EU with Ukraine and the countries of the Western Balkans would have no choice but to revamp its architecture in many areas to avoid becoming even more sluggish that it already is.
But the alternative, that of keeping the door closed to Ukraine, is potentially even worse.
The war is forcing Europe to look at the big picture, says Latvian leader Kariņš, adding that the bloc has an historic opportunity to play a more powerful role in the world. Seizing the moment and making the necessary changes, he says, is necessary because it is existential for all of us.