French President Emmanuel Macron admitted on Monday that Ukraine’s membership of the European Union could take “several decades” as he proposed a new multilevel framework for a “European political community”.
The big picture: The Ukrainian crisis has once again revealed two essential tensions at the heart of the European project: the ability of members like Hungary to undermine collective action; and the lack of a clear path to membership for other key members of the “European family”, in particular Ukraine.
Why is this important: The EU is the largest single market in the world. With the stroke of a pen, the bloc could strangle Russia’s economy by banning energy imports, or brighten Ukraine’s economic future with the promise of membership.
- But it is also a consensus body of 27 members whose interests and values vary, even when war rages next door.
- The internal debate over how to use the bloc’s considerable economic and diplomatic clout – both now on Ukraine, and longer term in a world likely to be dominated by US-China competition – is alive and well.
Driving the news: Macron, who currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, offered some answers to these existential questions in a keynote speech Monday after a special conference in Strasbourg.
- Macron said bluntly that Ukraine’s candidacy would force the EU to “lower membership standards”. He stressed the need for partnerships with European neighbors beyond the typical years-long limbo for aspiring members, though he did not elaborate on what that “political community” would look like.
- Now clearly the statesman of the EU after his re-election, Macron wants to put aside the issue of membership and streamline decision-making within the EU as it exists.
- Yes, but: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is much more optimistic about Ukraine’s future membership. She said monday the Commission will issue an “opinion” on the matter in June.
The most urgent threat to Macron’s reform ambitions for the EU, as well as plans to step up pressure on Moscow, are differences between existing members.
- Hungary has refused to vote for another set of sanctions ‘until there is a solution’ to its energy security – calling the EU’s proposal to phase out Russian oil imports ‘an atomic bomb’ for the Hungarian economy.
- Von der Leyen travel in Budapest on Monday in a bid to convince Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, considered the most pro-Russian leader in the EU, to drop his veto threat.
Between the lines: The European Parliament proposed an amendment to the bloc’s founding treaties to eliminate the veto – and with it the need to repeatedly appease leaders like Orbán.
- But 13 EU countries – mostly smaller Eastern European members – came out of against these proposals on Monday, saying “we already have a functioning Europe”.
- The EU has taken important steps towards integration during the pandemic, including issuing collective debt for the first time. But smaller states remain reluctant to simply let powers like France drive the agenda (much to Macron’s chagrin).
What to watch: While Macron continues to stress the need for a “sovereign” Europe that does not rely on any other power, including the United States, the war has underlined for some members the importance of the American security umbrella.
- Two of the six EU members that are not currently members of NATO, Finland and Sweden, could announce their intention to join the alliance by next week. EU members on NATO’s eastern flank have asked for and received more US support.
The bottom line: The EU that emerges from the Ukraine crisis will be different, but perhaps not as different as Macron would like.