EU and Ukraine join together for Europe Day but Kyiv is excluded

BRUSSELS (AP) — For the first time, Ukraine and the European Union are marking Europe Day, that celebration of “peace and unity,” together. Don’t let anyone be fooled too much, though.

European Commission President Ursula von der LeyenThe head of the EU’s executive branch, made a special trip to Kyiv on Tuesday to deliver the warm words of common destiny after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that his nation would from now on “celebrate Europe Day together with all of free Europe.”

It’s been more than a year since the war with invading RussiaThe Ukraine is desperate to join the EU as a way to secure its future in Western Europe. “Europe Day,” when the 27 current members celebrate their bond as one, also shows how far that moment is still off.

Next month, it will be one year already since the EU nations granted Ukraine candidate status, lavished the nation with praise, boosted it with aid and military support and sanctioned Kyiv’s enemy Russia with ever more sanctions. Some leaders often dress in the blue and yellow of Ukraine’s national flag and “Slava Ukraini,” which means Glory to Ukraine, ends all so many EU speeches.

But frustration is visible on the Ukraine’s side, since the beginning of membership talks is still far away. Weary and hoarse, dressed in army olive-drab, Zelenskyy visited the Netherlands last week with a heartfelt plea for a “positive assessment” to start the talks.

“We do all our best during the war. We do all the reforms what we have to do,” he told the host, one of the original six EU members dating back to 1958.

The concept of time in the EU is flexible, and patience is vital.

“I am absolutely impressed by what the president’s team is doing,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, with Zelenskyy standing beside him. “Fighting a war against Russia and at the same time making concrete steps in terms of clearing the way in terms of this whole process towards EU accession.”

He then reverted to the EU’s time-set mechanisms, which predicts that the next assessment will be in about half a year, in October. All this to a leader who is counting in weeks and months when his nation might be on the road to victory — or ruin.

It is best to keep the Ukraine on track.

“A promise has been made and in essence it is now in the hands of Ukraine. The EU cannot postpone things forever,” said Ghent University Professor Hendrik Vos, an expert on EU decision making.

Unexpected things can happen. This spring, suddenly overflowing silos of cereal in several eastern EU countries proved this. The EU removed trade restrictions in order to help Ukraine export grain, sunflowers and other farm products after Russia blocked the Black Sea route.

Yet in neighboring nations like Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, stocks built up, prices plummeted and that extremely vocal and influential group of voters — the EU’s 10 million farmers — started grumbling, indicating that membership promises are about much more than just 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.”

The founding principles of the EU included, in addition to making sure France and Germany did not go to war ever again, preventing hunger in the EU in the aftermath of World War II. It allowed farming to take on an exceptionally important role in EU policies and even now it takes 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 had a significant stake in the global wheat, barley and corn markets, as well as the sunflower oil market. Over 40% of Ukrainian exports came from farming.

Farmers are scared to open up their markets, especially when it is within a short time frame. Lambert emphasized that EU farmers must adhere to strict environmental and social regulations, while Ukrainians have not had to do so.

Ukraine will be able to access the market of all 27 current nations, but will still have to adhere with EU rules. Vos stated that animal welfare standards are even down to the size and shape of battery cages used for chickens.

“Farmers will be saying they don’t want unfair competition from big Ukraine chicken farms that don’t have to play by the rules,” Vos said.

Ukraine will be allowed to join only if the existing members provide major financial support to help rebuild Ukraine and upgrade it to EU standards. Many EU nations will become net contributors. Many EU politicians push the date of their membership to the distant future.

“Many years. We’ll need that time to see that obligations are satisfied,” 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.

In spite of the costs, Spain and Portugal – poor and desperately in need – were accepted into the EU after the Iberian Peninsula had escaped dictature during the 1970s.

In 2004, the EU admitted eight nations from the east, at great cost to its 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, sometimes long transition times imposed.

Russia’s war on Ukraine could very well be the same watershed as in EU history.

“At a certain point there is no way back. The decision to make a revolution has already been made. You can continue to talk about money in small increments until the end. But they won’t stop it,” Vos said.

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