As U.S. support wobbles, E.U. looks to long-term strategies on Ukraine

GRANADA, Spain — The European Union has drawn an era-defining lesson from the war in Ukraine: If we don’t expand, Russia will. But fear over softening support from allies has served as a reminder of how challenging that will be.

Alarmed by the conflict at its doorstep, a union forged from the ashes of World War II is mulling a historic rethink that could transform Ukraine and remake the region.

The conversation on Europe’s future comes at a delicate moment. Ukraine’s slow progress on the battlefield has raised fear of a frozen conflict. An E.U. country just backed the party of a pro-Russian populist. And most alarmingly for many, support from Ukraine’s biggest backer, the United States, suddenly looks a bit shaky.

Has the war in Ukraine changed Macron? Allies would love to know.

On the eve of Thursday’s talks about Europe’s future, President Biden convened a call with key allies to reassure them that, yes, the United States still supports Ukraine despite the fact that Congress passed a short-term government funding bill that did not include funding for the embattled country.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday that she is “very confident” of U.S. support for Ukraine. “What the United States is working on is the timing,” she said as she entered the venue in Granada.

In meetings on Thursday and Friday, European leaders will mull calls to bring more countries closer, including a potential expansion of the E.U. from 27 to more than 30 members, potentially drawing in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, as well as several countries in the western Balkans.

There is broad consensus that growing is necessary to counter Russia and its allies — good news to Kyiv and other capitals. Yet as leaders assemble in Spain to start their deliberations, the challenges ahead loom larger than ever.

European officials and diplomats have in recent weeks shrugged off questions about American support, insisting that Republican leaders will, in time, accept their theory that Ukrainian victory is core to U.S. interests, in part because of the message it sends Taiwan.

But with U.S. politics in shambles after the ouster of House speaker Kevin McCarthy, it will be hard for Europe to ignore the possibility of a shift in the country’s stance and what that might mean for Ukraine’s prospects on the battlefield and beyond.

Arriving in Granada on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a statement focused not only on the battle at hand, but also on the years ahead.

“Our joint goal is to ensure the security and stability of our common European home,” he said. “Ukraine’s key priority, particularly as winter approaches, is to strengthen air defense.”

Even in the best of times, expanding the E.U. to include Ukraine and others would be a complex, costly and politically perilous process.

Joining the E.U. is a years-long grind. A raft of countries — Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia — have been in membership talks for years. Turkey, which applied to join in 1987, remains a candidate, technically, despite the fact that its prospects look — at best — slim.

A prospective member’s entire political and legal system is studied, assessed and then slowly brought into compliance with a rather big rule book in Brussels.

Over the past year, Ukraine has been working closely with E.U. officials to undertake reforms that would start to bring it closer to what is required. In December, the E.U. will decide whether to open accession talks with Kyiv.

The challenge in Brussels will be equally complex. The prospect of bringing in Ukraine and other new members has renewed questions about how the bloc runs at 27 members, as well as how it would run with Ukraine and others in the fold.

“It is vital that we contemplate the future dynamics of our Union, our policies and decision-making, among others, to ensure the EU’s continued success,” Charles Michel, president of the European Council, wrote in a letter to leaders ahead of Friday’s informal summit.

If Ukraine joined, it would become the E.U.’s fifth-most-populous nation and its poorest per capita by a wide margin, drawing subsidies away from other members.

A recent disagreement between Ukraine and its E.U. neighbors, including Poland, foreshadowed the challenge of one day bringing a major grain exporter into the single market.

Some also wonder whether and how the E.U. can welcome new members when it is struggling, very publicly, with current members like Hungary and Poland. In a much larger bloc, with more members and an even broader set of interests, what mechanisms will be available to deal with outliers?

“To me, it’s not only a question of what to do about the people that want to come in,” said Camino Mortera-Martinez, head of the Brussels office of the Center for European Reform. “It’s also what to do about the people who are in and not necessarily complying with rules.”

And then there’s the question of timing. Michel, the European Council president, has said he wants Europe to be ready for the new members by 2030. Some doubt that is possible.

“The target date of 2030 is not realistic,” said Teona Lavrelashvili a policy analyst at the European Policy Center, a think tank focused on European integration. “It’s political commitment.”

“I think it’s important to have the political commitment,” she continued, “but we should be careful not to over-promise. … We have to use this time to see what is feasible and what is not feasible.”

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