The war on Ukraine “changes the history of our continent,” the ambassador said.


April 19, 2022

Defense One

Though France has been skeptical about growing the European Union in the past, Ukraine’s request for membership amid Russia’s invasion is “absolutely a game changer,” France’s ambassador to the United States said Tuesday.

Ambassador Philippe Etienne acknowledged that France has been clear that prospective member states must be ready to join the European Union and the alliance must be in a good position to accept them before talks about new membership begin. In the past, French officials have blocked the start of membership talks and pushed to reform the process of joining and leaving the alliance.

“That being said, this aggression, this invasion is absolutely a game changer, of course,” Etienne said at a Hudson Institute event. “It changes the history of our continent.”

France has played a leading role in Europe to try to end the violence in Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron had been talking with Russian leader Vladimir Putin to try to broker a ceasefire, but he announced Monday that he stopped those conversations after Russian forces massacred civilians in Bucha. Macron joined other leaders for a video call with President Joe Biden on Tuesday, where allies “affirmed their solidarity with the Ukrainian people and condemned the humanitarian suffering caused by Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified invasion,” according to a White House statement. 

To help better counter that violence, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy formally applied for membership in the European Union on Feb. 28, days after Russia launched its invasion. He urged members to use a special procedure to fast-track Ukraine’s application to give the country the “immediate” protection that comes with membership. 

Even though Russia has withdrawn from Kyiv, its assault on Ukraine continues. Moscow has four objectives now in Ukraine, a European official told reporters on Tuesday: to capture all of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine; to control a land bridge from Donbas to Crimea via Mariupol, which has been the site of some of the most vicious bombing; to control Kherson, which will give Russia control of the fresh water supply to Crimea; and to capture any additional territory it can.

Etienne said Ukraine’s application has already been submitted to the European Council, which is the first step to becoming a member. The council then asks the European Commission to evaluate whether the applicant meets the conditions to join the European Union, including

following all the rules of the union, having the support of all EU member states, and having the support from that country’s citizens.

If the commission recommends that the country become a member and all other members agree, lengthy negotiations begin, under which the country will adopt EU law and make other changes required to meet the EU criteria. Applicants do receive assistance from the European Union during negotiations to help it meet the alliance’s criteria. 

It’s a long process to join the European Union, and Ukraine does not have time on its side, as Russia ramps up its offensive in the Donbas. Portugal, for example, applied to join the European Union in March 1977 and became a member nearly nine years later, in January 1986. More recently, Croatia applied for EU membership in 2003, and became a member in 2013, after six years of negotiations between 2005 and 2011.

If Ukraine is accepted, it will almost certainly prompt threats of retaliation from Russia, which has already promised consequences for nations that help Ukraine, and threatened to base nuclear weapons in the Baltics if Finland and Sweden join NATO.

While this process is unfolding for Ukraine, Etienne said European officials have already said that “Ukraine is part of the European family.” This designation has symbolic meaning, since it shows Putin that Ukraine has the backing of Europe. But it also has more practical implications, Etienne said, adding that Ukraine is now connected to the European electric grid, after previously being part of the Russian system.

Ukraine signed an association agreement with the European Union in 2014 to deepen its economic and trade relationship with the alliance and take the first step to becoming a member. Member states have  additional benefits and protections, including a treaty similar to Article 5 of NATO that says an attack against one member is an attack against the entire European Union.