EU member states have warned Brussels against giving Ukraine an unrealistic expectation of rapidly joining the bloc, ahead of a summit in Kyiv where Volodymyr Zelenskyy is pressing for progress on accession and reconstruction.
Zelenskyy is due to host his EU counterparts Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel this week, where he is expected to lobby for the country’s EU membership, the use of frozen Russian assets to fund Ukraine’s reconstruction and a legal mechanism to prosecute Russians for war crimes.
Senior diplomats from EU capitals are concerned that unfeasible Ukrainian expectations — including EU accession by 2026 — have been encouraged rather than tempered by Brussels’ top officials.
“No political leader wants to be on the wrong side of history . . . Nobody wants to be blamed for not doing enough,” said one senior EU diplomat. “So they tell them it’s all possible.”
In response to Russia’s invasion last February, the EU scrambled to support Ukraine through military, humanitarian and financial packages, including sanctions against Russia that have hit the bloc’s own economies. The EU also took the unprecedented step of making Ukraine an official membership candidate, despite it falling short of the standard requirements.
But while some central and eastern European member states have championed Ukraine’s demands, other northern and western capitals worry about how its large, poor population and vast agricultural sector could be integrated with the EU.
France’s president Emmanuel Macron has been notably cautious about the speed of Ukraine’s accession, warning in May, before the country was formally made a candidate, that the process could take “several decades”.
The EU’s leadership has struck an optimistic tone. European Commission president von der Leyen said on a visit to Kyiv in September that the “accession process is well on track”. “It’s impressive to see the speed, the determination, the preciseness with which you are progressing,” she added.
European Council president Michel said this month that “no effort” should be spared to “turn this promise into a reality as fast as we can”. “Ukraine is the EU and the EU is Ukraine,” he told Ukraine’s parliament.
That rhetoric has created expectations in Kyiv that it deserves special privileges and a rapid entry into the bloc. Ukrainian prime minister Denys Shmyhal has said he envisages a two-year timetable.
“There is not going to be a fast-track path for Ukraine’s EU membership,” said a second EU diplomat. “There is a risk that rhetoric clashes with reality.”
Multiple member state officials told the FT the commission needed to make clear to Ukraine that there were huge hurdles ahead of beginning formal accession negotiations, which themselves can take a decade or more.
“That gap [between promises and reality] has been growing for some time. And we are getting to the point where it’s too wide,” said a third EU diplomat. “They appear to believe that they can just become a member tomorrow. And that’s obviously not the case.”
Von der Leyen and other commissioners will meet Ukrainian government officials as part of the trip, with the commission president and Michel, who represents the 27 member states, due to hold a summit with Zelenskyy on Friday.
“We have all noted the reform momentum that is ongoing in Ukraine,” said one senior EU official ahead of the meetings, pointing for example to work on the rule of law and anti-corruption efforts. The discussions in Kyiv will highlight the need for further reforms, while also touching on economic co-operation and reducing trade barriers with the EU.
Michel and von der Leyen have also been prominent in calling for member states to explore ways to use the proceeds of Russian central bank assets frozen in European banks in the reconstruction of Ukraine.
“Von der Leyen and Michel might be outcompeting each other on who can show themselves to be more pro-Ukrainian,” said one of the EU diplomats.
The cost of reconstruction and recovery was estimated at nearly €350bn by Ukraine, Brussels and the World Bank last September, and the price tag has only mounted since then as weekly Russian missile and drone attacks have damaged critical infrastructure.
But those calls to deploy the assets have been made despite big questions within the commission itself over how feasible such a route would be.
Didier Reynders, the EU justice commissioner, told the FT this week that the idea of using Russian government assets was “a very complex issue”. “I would say not only on the legal side but also for the good functioning of the monetary system,” he said.
The EU is also divided over the format of a potential tribunal to investigate and seek to prosecute Russians for alleged war crimes in Ukraine.