GRANADA, Spain — European Union leaders acknowledged Friday that just as aspiring members must meet exacting criteria to join the bloc, the 27 member nations also must work hard to reform the EU to make sure it can work smoothly with 30-plus nations.
Although Ukraine was hoping for a swift timetable for joining, the 27 leaders declined to adopt a target date of 2030 for Kyiv’s membership as had been proposed by EU Council President Charles Michel.
The group pledged unwavering support to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday, but the summit ended by saying that any aspiring member must complete the EU’s long and tortuous merit-based process that can last years or decades. Shortcuts for geopolitical reasons were ruled out.
“Aspiring members need to step up their reform efforts, notably in the area of rule of law, in line with the merit-based nature of the accession process,” said the joint declaration of the leaders. “In parallel, the Union needs to lay the necessary internal groundwork and reforms.”
Avoiding any target date for new members sidestepped a rift at the summit between those who want to draw Kyiv and other aspiring nations in as quickly as possible, and others that want the bloc to bide its time, setting up difficult talks on an issue that requires unanimity among the 27 member states.
Most EU nations have said since the February 2022 start of the war that they would work steadfastly on a “lasting unity” with Ukraine that would eventually translate into Kyiv’s membership in the wealthy bloc. This week, Hungarian President Viktor Orbán, ever the recalcitrant voice at summits, insisted that the whole idea should be rethought from scratch.
“We have never done an enlargement to a country that is in a war. And we don’t know where are the effective borders, how many people are living there,” Orbán said. “Sorry, it’s painful to get these countries in the EU.”
Leaders will have to decide whether to officially open talks with Ukraine in December. Orbán said the bloc remained unprepared to take such momentous decisions. And Hungary, like other nations, has a power of veto on the issue, which requires unanimity.
Orbán insisted the budgetary consequences had not yet been fully worked out, in addition to the impact of Ukraine’s massive agricultural production on the fate of the other nations with large farm sectors.
“Are you ready for that? Are the French peasants ready for that? So many such questions,” Orbán said.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen insisted that the EU’s near-seamless single market for business and trade was its greatest asset, and that its expansion would eventually benefit all involved. “The enlargement of the single market is always a huge added value for all of us,” she said.
But von der Leyen has stressed that “accession is merit-based.”
She says the progress that candidate countries make in aligning their laws with EU rules and standards should dictate the pace of membership, rather than some arbitrary deadline. The bureaucratic pace of falling in line with thousands of EU rules can easily take a decade or more.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas emphasized the advantages for Estonia since joining the bloc in 2004, making its way up from a relatively poor nation to one that is near the EU average of GDP in less than two decades.
“We would all benefit from enlargement,” Kallas said.
And just as aspiring members must push through reforms, so must the EU refashion itself on a larger scale. That includes reassigning funds, turning current beneficiaries into contributors to help poorer new members, and streamlining decision-making to reduce the number of decisions requiring unanimity.
That already has proven difficult enough for the current members, especially with decades-old rules still on the books that originally were designed for a dozen closely-knit nations.
So the EU challenge now is to make sure the necessary reforms will be in place when the aspiring members are ready to join.
“If the countries fulfill all the criteria, I think it’s wrong to say to them that, ‘oh, but we are not ready now’,” said Kallas. “So we definitely have to do our homework on our side.”
Source : Yahoo