Europe's true beliefs on Ukraine are put to the test

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Europe's true beliefs on Ukraine are put to the test

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BRUSSELS — As long as it takes? Or as long as we feel like it? 

For nearly two years, the EU has promised to support “Ukraine and its people for as long as it takes” — taking in millions of Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s war of aggression, supporting Kyiv with financial and military aid, rallying diplomatic support across the world, and shrinking its economic and energy ties with Russia.  

But the bloc’s 27 member states are now struggling to agree unanimously on a longer-term €50 billion aid package for Kyiv, as well as on opening the door to future membership as this week’s European Council summit commences. At a time when $60 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine is stuck in the U.S. Congress, support from Brussels is essential to Kyiv’s continuing fight against Russia. 

The decision to open the EU’s door to Ukraine could also be existential to the future of the bloc, as it means incorporating a country of nearly 40 million people mired in a war with a powerful neighbor. Failure to agree on such a historic decision, meanwhile, would tarnish the image of European unity, not only on the EU’s long-term support for Ukraine but also on its overall geopolitical ambitions.

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The summit will be a “decisive one,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said at a press conference last Friday. 

The prospect of joining the bloc is the biggest support the EU can provide to Ukraine, an EU diplomat said. “Let’s not forget that a part of the reason this war started — apart from whatever went [on] in the head of Putin — is Ukraine turning to the West.”

The EU is now testing the limits of the promise “as long as it takes,” said Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, one of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters. “Apparently as long as it takes means as long as we can agree. If we cannot, obviously that will have huge repercussions, first of all in Ukraine, but not just there.” 

It’s not the first test of the EU’s unity on supporting Ukraine. The bloc’s salvo of sanctions against Russia were often watered down because of the economic concerns of various EU countries, sometimes leading to weeks of horse-trading and internal wrangling. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in particular has regularly used his veto power to win concessions for Budapest, such as exemptions for Russian oil imports, but has so far never prevented an agreement.

This time around, however, Orbán is rejecting not only extra money for Ukraine but also opening accession talks with Kyiv, calling the latter proposal “unfounded and poorly prepared.” Instead, Orbán wants a strategic debate on the EU’s Ukraine policy and is calling for a cease-fire between Russia and Ukraine.

Half a dozen senior EU officials and diplomats from across the bloc stressed that Hungary is isolated in its position, and that the 26 other member countries still support Ukraine and want Kyiv to be a part of the club in the long term. 

Privately, however, many admit the war is no longer a top priority in the day-to-day of most EU leaders. 

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán | John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

“Doubts are on the rise,” said one EU official, who like the others quoted was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “How desperate is the situation on the battlefield? How much more money will we pour into this black hole? Populists across Europe will ride this wave in the coming months.”

As the June European elections approach, EU leaders are wary of favoring Ukraine over the daily concerns of their own citizens. Up to seven EU countries have stressed that the €50 billion to Kyiv must be linked to money for other European priorities such as tackling migration, precisely to avoid domestic criticism.

“We now see an emerging group of countries who sometimes look like they have second thoughts about Ukraine becoming a member of the EU,” said one senior EU diplomat, citing Austria’s desire that future membership for Ukraine be linked with next steps on Bosnia-Herzegovina’s EU membership.

The standstill on the battlefield doesn’t help. Months of static frontline combat between Ukraine and Russia have consumed weapons and money with no sign of a military breakthrough for Kyiv.

The first six months of next year will be brutal for Ukraine, said Neil Melvin, a director at the RUSI think tank, with Russia managing to accelerate arms production and supplies while aid packages from Ukraine’s allies languish.

Ukraine and its supporters argue that is exactly why the West should quickly provide more of the weapons that are needed to win — instead of falling into Russia’s trap. 

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday that now is the time to demonstrate “what it means to support Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes.’ Ukraine is not only fighting against the invader, but for Europe. Joining our family will be Ukraine’s ultimate victory.”

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told POLITICO that neither Ukraine nor the EU had a viable alternative to continuing to fight.

“The next country that Russia may attack will be a European country, it will not be somewhere else,” he said. “If one side blinks it will be a very bad moment for that side … It’s not us who has to blink, we have to make Russia blink.”

Increasingly, some EU diplomats are wondering whether Orbán has joined Putin in strategically waiting for Western support for Ukraine to disintegrate.

With the election victory of a far-right party in the Netherlands; with a Russia-friendly leader taking power in Slovakia; and with an expected far-right surge in the next European election, Orbán’s claim that “the winds of change are here” seems prescient. A victory by former President Donald Trump in next year’s U.S. election could further undermine Western support for Kyiv.

“Factors of inertia and doubt, which have characterized EU enlargement for years, are coming again to the fore and are cooling down the geostrategic rationale for opening up the EU to new members,” said Kai-Olaf Lang of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. 

Europe is pulling out the stops to avoid a car-crash summit, with EU leaders and their aides in frantic negotiations with Hungary on a deal to give Orbán more EU money in exchange for lifting his veto on aid to Ukraine. If that strategy fails, leaders are cooking up alternative plans to get the money to Ukraine via bilateral funding. 

A deal on enlargement will prove more difficult, EU diplomats said. In theory that could be kicked down the road until EU leaders reconvene in March. 

Politically, however, such a delay would be a massive blow to Ukraine and to the EU’s image, especially as Brussels has reassured Ukraine a decision would arrive sooner than later.

Immediately after the war began in February 2022, von der Leyen said “Ukraine is one of us.” During a visit to Kyiv this fall she told the country’s parliament she was confident the decision on membership could still be taken this year. European Council President Charles Michel has said he hopes Ukraine will join the EU by 2030 — an ambitious date in any scenario.

The decision to open the door to the EU is no less important as spiritual sustenance, said Ian Bond of the Centre for European Reform. “The signal that you send by starting talks is that you are now on a train which is going towards a destination. If the Hungarians bar the door of the carriage and say you are not getting in, this is psychologically a blow to the Ukrainians.” 

Joshua Posaner, Hanne Cokelaere, Pieter Haeck, Jacopo Barigazzi, Nicholas Vinocur, Aitor Hernández–Morales, Clea Caulcutt and Camille Gijs contributed reporting.

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