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BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union has marked its Europe Day, that celebration of “peace and unity,” together with Ukraine for the first time. The display of solidarity doesn’t mean the war-ravaged country is closer to becoming an EU member, though.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the EU’s executive branch, made a special trip to Kyiv on Tuesday to deliver warm words about the bloc and Ukraine’s common destiny to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“Ukraine has been fighting for the ideals of Europe that we celebrate today to create lasting unity and peace,” Ms. von der Leyen said.
After more than a year of war with invading Russia, Ukraine sees joining the bloc as an essential element of a future in the Western world. But as the 27 current members commemorated their bond as one, it was clear how far off Ukraine’s membership remains.
Next month, it will be one year since the EU nations made Ukraine a candidate for membership. They have lavished the country with praise, boosted it with billions in aid and military support and adopted multiple rounds of sanctions.
Some European leaders often dress in the blue and yellow of Ukraine’s national flag and say “Slava Ukraini,” which means Glory to Ukraine, to end their speeches.
Yet, frustration on the Ukrainian side is evident. Weary and hoarse, dressed in army olive-drab, Mr. Zelenskyy visited the Netherlands last week with a heartfelt plea to speed up the country’s membership process.
Ms. von der Leyen heard the same message Tuesday and acknowledged that it was “impressive to see that despite a full blown war, Ukraine is working hard, tirelessly and intensively” to meet the EU’s requirements.
Time, however, is an extremely flexible concept in the EU, and patience an essential one. The EU foresees the next assessment in October. “A lot of progress has been made, but work has to continue,” Ms. von der Leyen said.
That is hard for Mr. Zelenskyy, a leader who is counting in weeks and months when his nation might be on the road to victory—or ruin. The best advice, though, is for Ukraine to stay the painstakingly slow course that will likely take many years, if not over a decade.
“A promise has been made, and in essence it is now in the hands of Ukraine. The EU cannot postpone things forever,” Ghent University Professor Hendrik Vos, an expert on EU decision-making, said.
But unexpected things can happen, as suddenly overflowing grain silos in several eastern EU nations proved early this spring. To help Ukraine export its grain, sunflower oil and other farm produce after a Russian blockade closed off the Black Sea route, the EU lifted trade restrictions to allow the shipments to pass through the bloc and hopefully on to needy world markets.
Yet in neighboring nations like Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, stocks built up, prices plummeted and an extremely vocal and influential group of voters—the EU’s 10 million farmers—started grumbling, demonstrating that economics may trump sentimental shows of support.
“Of course we have solidarity with Ukraine,” said Christine Lambert, the president of the COPA EU farmers union, “but there are also significant economic aspects to this,” adding that “it’s sort of creating a hole in our budget. It will result in problems and farmers can’t bear these problems alone.”
Apart from making sure that France and Germany never go to war again, the founding principles of the EU also included avoiding hunger in the bloc in the wake of World War II. It allowed farming to take on an exceptionally important role in EU policies, and even now agricultural subsidies take up almost a third of the EU’s designated budget.
The war and climate change have put EU farmers increasingly in a squeeze and taking in—and on—a nation like Ukraine, which is historically seen as the breadbasket of Europe, would be especially challenging.
Before the war, Ukraine still had a major stake in the global market of wheat, barley, corn and sunflower oil. Agriculture products accounted for more than 40 percent of exports.
Opening the EU up to such a competitor worries many farmers, especially if Ukraine is made a member. Ms. Lambert pointed out how EU farmers need to meet tough environmental and social rules, which Ukrainians so far don’t have to comply with.
Once Ukraine joins, it will in principle have the whole market of the current 27 nations at its disposal. But it will also need to abide by EU rules, right down to the size of chicken battery cages to meet animal welfare standards.
“Farmers will be saying they don’t want unfair competition from big Ukraine chicken farms that don’t have to play by the rules,” Dr. Vos, the university professor, said.
And Ukraine will only be able to join if it gets major financial aid from the current members to rebuild its nation and upgrade to EU standards. It will turn many of the EU nations that now get money from EU coffers into net contributors. Little wonder that many in the EU are not ready to embrace Ukraine as a member just yet.
“Many years. We’ll need that time to see that obligations are satisfied,” Ms. Lambert said.
Such considerations from a small group of stakeholders won’t stop the groundswell of history, though. In the EU’s successive sweeps of expansion, short-term financial losses never stood in the way in the end.
When the Iberian Peninsula wrested itself free from dictatorship during the 1970s, poor and needy Spain and Portugal were embraced in the EU a decade later despite the cost.
When the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the EU took in eight eastern nations in 2004, also at a major cost to the existing members.
Each time, talks on nitty-gritty issues went on deep into countless nights but eventually compromises were found—more money was given to grumbling members, and sometimes long transition times were imposed.
Russia’s war in Ukraine could well be an equal watershed in EU history.
“In a country senselessly attacked, some might think it is impossible, improbable, or too distant to talk about a free and peaceful Ukraine in the European Union. But Europe is about making the impossible possible, and so is Ukraine,” Ms. von der Leyen said.