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EU must consider Ukraine's application

Eugen Theise
Eugen Theise
March 10, 2022

It's not just Ukraine's membership application on the agenda in Versailles on Thursday and Friday, DW's Eugen Theise writes. The European Union's future as a community of values will also be determined.

Russian military vehicle near Oktyabrsky, Belgorod, near the Russian-Ukrainian border
Image: Anton Vergun/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

When Ukraine and the European Union reached their ambitious Association Agreement in 2014, Ukrainian diplomats had to wrestle with EU bureaucrats over every word in order to express the country's desire for future membership in the bloc. This euphemism-spiked portion of the agreement reads like it was ritually recomposed to explicitly not say one thing: that Ukraine can, indeed, become a member of the European Union. 

 In the Association Agreement, the bloc recognizes that "Ukraine as a European country shares a common history and common values with the Member States of the European Union (EU) and is committed to promoting those values." The EU also notes "the importance Ukraine attaches to European identity." There's a lot in that — but not a concrete prospect of membership.

DW's Eugen Theise in glasses
DW's Eugen TheiseImage: Privat

When one thinks about the price that Ukraine is now paying for striving for closer ties with the EU, it is shameful. Thousands of Ukrainians are dying because their country turned away from the brutal regime in Moscow and toward a future in a freer Europe.

As Russian bombs reduce Ukrainian cities to rubble, the tortured prose of the Association Agreement is exposed as a document of the European Union's timidity.

Zelenskyy challenges EU

Four days after Russia's invasion began on February 24, and with Russian tanks approaching the outskirts of Kyiv and the capital on edge, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed Ukraine's application for EU membership. Standing ovations in the European Parliament and enthusiastic press coverage across the continent are not enough. Ukrainians need a vision for the future: the prospect of EU membership.

It's not just Ukraine's application for membership that will be discussed when EU leaders gather in Versailles on Thursday and Friday: The European Union's future as a community of values will also be on the agenda. No nation on the continent has had to pay a higher price to be a member of the European Union. Whoever does not acknowledge that fact has learned nothing from the vile invasion launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The people of Ukraine are using everything they have to fight for their freedom. Even when skeptics of the country's prospects for joining the bloc dismiss Ukraine's application — saying it is purely symbolic politics at a time of crisis — the EU could send no stronger symbol than by declaring that a democratic Europe is our common home. And for that reason, Ukraine must have a clear potential path to becoming a member of the EU.

The route to full membership in the European Union is a generational project. The necessary reconstruction of Ukraine and the possibility of a lengthy occupation by Russia will make this even tougher to see through the necessary reforms for membership in Kyiv. And yet we cannot deny the people of Ukraine the prospect of a future in the European Union. The EU only has a future as a credible community of values when it does not fail Ukraine. The prospect of membership would be a convincing message from the EU to the Kremlin: Ukraine is neither a buffer zone nor Russia's front yard — it is part of the European family.

This article was originally written in German.