European leaders are expected to formally accept Ukraine’s EU candidacy

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (l) speaks at a joint press conference with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine.

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BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders are expected to formally approve Ukraine’s candidate status to join the bloc Thursday, the first official step toward full membership.

The move has reopened a tough and sensitive debate within the EU over expansion, as Brussels has not welcomed any new country since 2013, when Croatia joined.

That’s partly the result of the bloc’s difficult political and economic environment: the impacts of the 2008 global financial crisis, its own sovereign debt crisis in 2011, and then a wave of refugees from the Syrian civil war during 2015. Those events reinforced support for populists. parties across the region, leading many member states to prioritize internal affairs over expanding EU membership.

But this has begun to change, albeit slowly, following Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. A recent European Parliament survey found that European support for EU membership is at its highest point in 15 years.

The leaders of Germany, France and Italy visited Kyiv last week to express support for Ukraine’s attempt to join the bloc. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said then that both Ukraine and Moldova were ready to take another step towards membership, provided they implement various reforms.

But some EU countries have reservations about reopening the bloc’s doors.

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa has said the EU risks creating “false expectations” with Ukraine’s offer to join. in a interview with Financial Timeshe added that the EU should seek to provide immediate support to Kyiv instead of opening “legal discussions”.

Joining the EU is traditionally a lengthy process, as potential members have to align their political and judicial systems with those of the bloc. Furthermore, opening the door to one nation could mean opening the door to several others.

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Several Western Balkan nations, located in southern and eastern Europe, have long been promised EU membership, but negotiations have yet to start. Kosovo, for example, has been waiting four years for visa requirements to travel to the European Union to be lifted.

The risk for the EU is that it will be seen as giving preferential treatment to Kyiv, upsetting other parts of the continent and potentially bringing them closer to Russia.

“We have to remain vigilant and give the Western Balkans the same priority as Ukraine,” Austrian ministers Alexander Schallenberg and Karoline Edtstadler said in a letter late last month. “We want and need those countries firmly anchored in our field.”

For Kosovo, it is a question of geopolitics.

“This is also a question of credibility for the EU, and also for the EU to understand that bringing the Western Balkans together as a region, embracing them and bringing them to the table is also in the strategic interest of the European Union itself, because as I said before, The more attention is diverted from the EU, the more malign actors will use this space, mainly Russia,” Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu told CNBC on Wednesday.

However, his comments should be taken with a grain of salt, as Kosovo has a long history of conflict with Serbia, a staunch ally of Russia. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and is recognized by 110 countries, including the United States, but not by Serbia and Russia. It has yet to become a UN member state.

EU members Greece, Cyprus and Spain are also among those that do not recognize Kosovo as a sovereign nation, making its possible EU membership highly controversial.

“Now, in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is nothing more complex and important than fighting against autocratic and genocidal regimes, like the Russian regime, because the more room Russia is allowed to expand its influence on the European continent , the worse it will be for all of us, regardless of whether we are inside the EU or outside the Union,” said the president of Kosovo.

The issue will be debated among European leaders on Thursday. Whatever they decide and say to Ukraine will be closely watched in the Balkans.

Olaf Scholz, the chancellor of Germany, told CNBC on Thursday: “[The] The most important question is that we all work together and that the Western Balkan states have a good chance of becoming real members of the EU. They have worked very hard.”

Albania and North Macedonia, which changed its name in an effort to increase its chances of joining the EU, were previously given candidate status but are still waiting for accession talks to start.

“It is important how the leaders explain enlargement to their people,” Osmani-Sadriu said, adding that EU leaders should emphasize that the bloc’s expansion “benefits the peace and stability of the entire European continent.”

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