France’s president warned Monday that decades could pass before Ukraine joins the European Union, and proposed a new political organization to bring together countries on the continent that share EU values but are not part of the bloc.
During a speech marking Europe Day in Strasbourg, France, Emmanuel Macron said that "we all know perfectly that the process of allowing (Ukraine) to join would take several years, in fact probably several decades."
Macron spoke after the European Union's executive arm, the European Commission, said it aims to deliver a first opinion in June on Ukraine’s request to become a member of the bloc.
Once candidate status is granted, the process of EU membership usually takes years and any single member-state can veto not only any final accession deal, but also the opening and closing of individual negotiation chapters.
The 27 EU nations have been fully united in backing Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion, adopting unprecedented economic sanctions against Moscow since the start of the war on Feb. 24. But leaders are divided on how fast Brussels could move to accept Ukraine as a member, and how swiftly the bloc could sever energy ties with Moscow.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said that she discussed Monday with Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskyy "EU support and Ukraine’s European pathway."
For now, Ukraine only has an "Association Agreement" with the EU, which is aimed at opening the country’s markets and bringing it closer to Europe. It includes a far-reaching free trade pact and is intended to help modernize Ukraine’s economy.
Eastern European countries warmly support speeding up Ukraine’s membership bid, but EU officials have stressed the process could take years due to the outstanding reforms that still need to be achieved before the war-torn country meets EU criteria.
Macron said a fast-track procedure for Ukraine would lead to lowering standards, an idea he refuses.
"The European Union, given its level of integration and ambition, cannot be the only way to structure the European continent in the short term," he said.
Instead, Macron proposed what he called a "European Political Community" which would be open to countries that haven’t joined the EU, or, like the United Kingdom, have left it.
"This new European organization would allow democratic European nations that adhere to our core values to find a new space for political cooperation, security, energy cooperation, transport, investment, infrastructure, movement of people," Macron said.
Macron added that joining the new organization would not guarantee future EU membership.
Speaking at an EU conference on the bloc’s future priorities, Macron stressed the stark contrast with Russia, which on the same day staged a military parade in Moscow to commemorate the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
"We have given two very different images of May 9," Macron said. "On the one side, there was a desire for a demonstration of force and intimidation and a resolutely war-like speech, and there was here ... an association of citizens and parliamentarians -- national and European -- for a project on our future."
Speaking later Monday ahead of a meeting in Berlin with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Macron added that it was important to give Ukraine an "honest answer" about the length of time it would take to achieve European standards.
Scholz said Macron’s idea was "a very interesting proposal for dealing with the big challenge we face."
But he said the EU shouldn’t stop pursuing the accession processes for those countries where it has already begun, citing as an example North Macedonia, whose leader had taken "very brave" decisions in recent years.
"We should find a way that this bravery isn’t disappointed," Scholz said.