29th Mar 2023

Dutch seek 'rigorous' EU approach to Ukraine candidacy

  • EU leaders to discuss Ukraine's application in Brussels next week (Photo: European Council)
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The Dutch have urged the EU Commission to take a "rigorous" approach in deciding if Ukraine merits being put on the enlargement train.

The Commission is due to unveil its Ukraine recommendation on Friday (17 June).

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The informal Dutch paper on Ukraine's application, seen by EUobserver on Thursday but sent to the Commission earlier, says: "The Netherlands reaffirms its commitment to the enlargement process".

But it also says "we reaffirm the need for fair and rigorous conditionality" in taking Ukraine forward.

The Commission's recommendation should be "qualitative" and should "elaborate" which reforms Ukraine must carry out in future, the Dutch paper adds, before listing two pages of reform "priorities", going into detail, such as criminalisation of anti-LGBTI hatred.

The Dutch paper does not take an explicit position on what the EU should do with Ukraine's bid.

But it points to key questions on the table, such as: should the EU give Ukraine a future candidacy promise that is conditional on reforms, as it did with Bosnia? Or should Ukraine leapfrog Bosnia and be put on legal par with North Macedonia and Albania?

French president Emmanuel Macron, the German chancellor, the Italian prime minister, and the Romanian president voiced support for granting Ukraine "immediate candidate status" when they visited Kyiv on Thursday.

And EU leaders will discuss the Ukraine question and the Western Balkans at a summit next week.

They will remain "strongly committed to providing further military support to help Ukraine exercise its inherent right of self-defence," according to a draft communiqué dated 15 June and seen by EUobserver.

They will also voice "full commitment to the unequivocal EU membership perspective of the Western Balkans".

The draft summit conclusions mention "negotiation between Bulgaria and North Macedonia" — amid budding hope Sofia might drop its veto on opening EU accession talks with Skopje and Tirana.

Bulgaria has been insisting North Macedonia says its language and culture are of Bulgarian origin.

And a breakthrough on the impasse might generate positive momentum on enlargement broadly speaking when EU leaders discuss Ukraine's status.

But the Dutch are part of a wider group, including Denmark and Portugal, who have voiced reservations on taking the Ukraine candidacy step, EU diplomats said.

And for all of Macron's enthusiasm in Kyiv, the French are also sending mixed messages by trumpeting Macron's idea of creating a new pan-European intergovernmental body — the European Political Community (EPC).

The EPC would "not replace ... enlargement", the draft summit conclusions say.

But Macron's grand marquee idea is stealing Ukraine's limelight.

The draft summit conclusions place the EPC proposal front-and-centre in a "strategic discussion" on "wider Europe", while turning to the Russian war five paragraphs later and mentioning the Ukraine status question on page four.

The EPC would "foster political dialogue" between the EU and "the Western Balkans, the associated countries of our Eastern Partnership [former Soviet states], and other European countries with whom we have close relations", they say.

Poland and the Baltic States also support immediate Ukraine EU candidacy on moral and strategic grounds.

But amid the Dutch concern on reform and the French EPC half-way house idea, there also lurks the threat of a veto by Russia-leaning EU countries.

An Austrian informal paper on enlargement, dated May, spoke only of more "tangible" Western Balkan enlargement, without mentioning Ukraine's bid (which was filed in February).

"Russian aggression against Ukraine", Austria said, "could have negative collateral effects on the stability of the Western Balkans. As a consequence, the conflict would move from the EU's borders into its very midst".

Orbán's right

For his part, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán recently vetoed a Russia oil embargo and the EU blacklisting of a top Russian churchman.

He was taken to task for it in a letter by Lithuanian liberal MEP Petras Austrevicius.

And if Orbán's reply to Austrevicius, dated 15 June and seen by EUobserver, reflects his mentality going into the EU summit, then there could be choppy water ahead.

Orbán didn't mention Ukraine's candidacy bid, but he accused Austrevicius of being "offensive", resented his "indoctrination", and enshrined Hungary's EU prerogative in quasi-philosophical language.

"The right of veto is conceptually incomprehensible because in the absence of [EU] unanimity, no decision can be made," Orbán said.

"I reserve Hungary's right to speak up with a sincere voice and sober arguments against proposals that run counter to common sense," he told the MEP.

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