Press play to listen to this article
VERSAILLES, France — The Netherlands are once again leading a charge of frugal nations at a major European Council summit, but this time it’s not common debt that the Dutch are blocking but generosity of spirit towards war-torn Ukraine’s bid to join the EU.
As EU heads of state and government meet in Versailles to discuss Russia’s war in Ukraine, Kiev’s hastily submitted membership application will be high on the agenda.
As his country faces an invasion and bombardment, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded late last month for immediate admission under a “new special procedure”.
“Our goal is to be together with all Europeans,” he said, adding: “I’m sure it’s possible.”
But Dutch diplomats, under the leadership of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, have raised obstacles to granting Ukraine candidate country status, or even to a reference in the leaders’ declaration to Article 49 of the treaties. of the EU, which defines the accession process, according to diplomats and officials from the Netherlands, Ukraine and other EU countries.
Dutch diplomats did not deny their country’s position, but insisted that Germany and other countries shared their position as well as the Dutch view that any reference to Article 49 and Ukraine’s formal membership would further provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin, however, has shown that he alone decides when he feels provoked – lashing out at a web of conspiracy theories he has woven for years, cut off from the reality of the West and his role in Ukraine. .
The Hague’s stance caused a particularly painful sting, given that 196 Dutch citizens died when Russian-backed separatists shot down a civilian plane, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, over eastern Ukraine in July 2014.
This also follows a non-binding referendum in 2016 in which Dutch voters opposed a political association agreement between Ukraine and the EU. This campaign against the Association Agreement was led by far-right politician Thierry Baudet, who was later discovered to have financial ties to Russia.
Since the invasion, Baudet has continued to support Putin, one of the few European politicians to do so. “Putin is right”, Baudet wrote on Twitter Last week. “The West behaves like a bandit.” He said NATO, the EU and the US should stop stepping up the fight with Russia and “accept neutrality” for Ukraine.
The Dutch parliament finally ratified the association agreement in May 2017, as well as a trade agreement with Ukraine. Since then, Kyiv has made steady, if sometimes slow, progress on reforms demanded by Brussels, including anti-corruption initiatives and overhauling its banking and energy systems.
On March 1, with the bombs falling and the full-scale invasion of Russia underway, the Ukrainian Ministry of Finance made a coupon payment of $292 million on a Eurobond with an interest rate of 7.75% and a due date of September 2022. A senior EU official pointed POLITICO to the payment as proof of Ukraine’s commitment to meet its obligations.
As EU leaders began to arrive at Versailles on Thursday, Ukrainian officials were reeling from the failure of the latest ceasefire talks in Turkey and reacted furiously to the Dutch stance on EU membership.
“So the Dutch, having almost killed the Association Agreement because of their ‘tolerance’ of Russian cronies, are now ready to punish Ukraine – the people at war with Russia – for the second time, killing the hope,” said a senior Ukrainian diplomat.
Ukrainians often rightly point out that during their Maidan revolution of 2013-2014, during which tens of thousands demonstrated for months in favor of political and trade agreements with the EU, they became the only ones to have died under the blue flag of the EU. and yellow flag. And Putin has repeatedly said his invasion is heavily based on Ukraine’s western trajectory, particularly its stated aspiration to join NATO.
“The message is very simple: the main players in the EU must wake up,” said the top Ukrainian diplomat. “They cured the monster and now they should take responsibility for stopping the war and bringing Ukraine in.”
A Brussels-based diplomat familiar with The Hague’s position said Rutte, true to his pragmatic instincts, was more interested in helping Zelenskyy immediately than EU membership would help him in the distant future.
Immediate support means military assistance, money and aid for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the country. “Everyone in his emotion is concentrating on a file that will take 20 years,” said this diplomat. “And that’s not going to help Zelenskyy today.”
At present, the draft leaders’ statement notes that Ukraine’s application is under review and awaits the opinion of the European Commission. “In the meantime and without delay, we will further strengthen our ties and deepen our partnership,” the draft statement reads. “Ukraine belongs to our European family.
Poland and Estonia led the campaign for Ukraine’s early EU membership. And the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, proposed a compromise text that would refer to Article 49, but the Netherlands insisted that it also refer to a bunch of other treaty provisions related to the membership process.
Officials noted that new member countries must comply with the EU’s legal “acquis” which runs to some 88,000 pages.
A day before Zelenskyy’s plea for immediate membership, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen raised Kyiv’s hopes, saying in a TV interview: “They are ours and we want them in.” , she told the Euronews television channel.
On Monday, EU ambassadors formally forwarded Ukraine’s membership application to the Commission for an opinion, speeding up a process that normally takes months.
The diplomats said that while there is technically no instant admission process, in the EU anything is possible if all 27 heads of state and government express unanimous support.
“It is true that the accelerated procedure does not exist in our regulations,” said a European diplomat in favor of Ukraine’s admission. “However, if there is political will, anything can be done.”
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.