EU Opens Membership Talks with Ukraine Amid War

The European Union opened membership talks with Ukraine on Tuesday, giving the country a political boost in the midst of its war against Russia's invasion
FILE PHOTO: Flags of Ukraine fly in front of the EU Parliament building on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, in Brussels, Belgium February 24, 2023.
FILE PHOTO: Flags of Ukraine fly in front of the EU Parliament building on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, in Brussels, Belgium February 24, 2023. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

By Andrew Gray

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -The European Union opened membership talks with Ukraine on Tuesday, giving the country a political boost in the midst of its war against Russia's invasion, although a long and tough road still lies ahead before it could join the bloc.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, addressing the meeting in Luxembourg by video link, said the start of the talks was a historic moment and a significant step for both Kyiv and the EU towards "our shared great victory".

"For our nation, the European Union signifies much more than a physical space," he said. "It represents values and home."

The meeting was more about symbolism than the nitty-gritty of negotiations, which will start in earnest only after the EU has screened reams of Ukrainian legislation to assess all the reforms needed to meet the bloc's standards.

But by marking the start of talks with Ukraine, and with its neighbour Moldova later in the day, the EU signalled that both countries are on a path away from Russian influence and towards greater integration with the West.

"The future for Ukraine is for the Ukrainians to decide," Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, told the meeting.

"The EU will continue to support the right of the Ukrainian people to choose their own destiny."

The moment was poignant for many Ukrainians, who trace their current conflict with Moscow back to the Maidan uprising a decade ago, when protesters toppled a pro-Russian president who reneged on a pledge to develop closer ties with the EU.

ARDUOUS JOURNEY

The journey to EU membership is arduous for candidate countries, as they must reform to meet EU standards on a wide range of issues, from fighting corruption through regulating agriculture to harmonising customs rules.

But the war adds a huge extra layer of challenges for both Kyiv and Brussels, raising questions that neither wants to answer at the moment - such as whether Ukraine could join if part of its territory was still occupied by Russian forces.

The prospect of Moldovan membership poses similar questions, albeit on a smaller scale, as Russian soldiers are stationed in the country's breakaway Transdniestria region.

Ukraine and Moldova will have to navigate not just technical and legal obstacles to membership but also political hurdles.

Candidate countries need approval from all 27 EU members to open and close each step of membership negotiations, giving EU governments numerous opportunities to hold up the process.

Hungary - which maintains closer ties to Russia than other EU members and does not give arms to Kyiv - held up the start of the talks, citing concerns about the rights and treatment of ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine, according to diplomats.

Enlarging the EU to include Ukraine and Moldova - and other hopefuls such as Western Balkan countries and Georgia - would need a radical overhaul of EU rules on everything from farm and economic development subsidies to decision-making, analysts say.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth and Yuliia Dysa; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)

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