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17 Jun, 2022 15:25

As the bloc faces a looming energy crisis, are EU leaders using potential membership to rein in Ukraine's Zelensky?

Understanding that prolonged fighting will only hurt them, it seems the top EU states want to sway Ukraine to peace
As the bloc faces a looming energy crisis, are EU leaders using potential membership to rein in Ukraine's Zelensky?

When the leaders of the three leading EU countries – Germany, France, and Italy – took a train to Kiev to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky, this week, the public show was one of solidarity and support. But there could be much more to the visit than meets the eye. 

The politicians, who were also joined in Ukraine by Romania’s president, represent the bloc’s economic engine, which right now is stalling under the its own anti-Russia sanctions. Themselves a knee-jerk ideological response to the conflict in Ukraine.

Now, it’s their own political interests back home that are now increasingly in peril as this conflict drags on and drives up the cost of daily living for the average EU citizen through record high gas prices and inflation. And the situation just seems to be getting worse as the unforeseen consequences pile up.

This week, Russia’s Gazprom announced an overall reduction of 40% in Russian gas deliveries to Europe via the Nord Stream pipeline, citing Siemens’ failure to return repaired gas pumps. The German company explained that Canadian anti-Russian sanctions prevented the return of the units from a factory in Montreal. 

So it’s hardly surprising that French President Emmanuel Macron, whose centrist parliamentary majority is in a tight election race this weekend against a left-leaning coalition, has pivoted his recent rhetoric towards more of an emphasis on negotiated peace over continued armed conflict. “At some point, when we will have done our maximum to help Ukraine resist – when, as is my wish, it will have won and the firing has ceased – we will have to negotiate,” Macron said this week. “The president of Ukraine and its leaders will have to negotiate with Russia.” Macron has come under fire from Ukrainian officials, including Zelensky himself, who accused France of pressuring him to cede disputed territory or to make other concessions to end the conflict. 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has also been chastised by Ukrainian officials for dragging his feet in delivering promised weapons. But Scholz is sending a pretty strong message to Ukrainian officials as they wait around for their promised German weapons to arrive and end up feeling and acting like jilted boyfriends who were stood-up on a date. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, proposed a four-point peace plan last month which served, if nothing else, to at least project his government’s desire for peace rather than continued conflict.

The EU has placed itself in a tough spot. It has promised total support to Ukraine and Zelensky, but seems to have come to the realization that peace can’t realistically be achieved by giving Zelensky everything that he asks for – and that a resolution to the conflict is going much more likely to come via negotiations than through prolonging the fighting in the hopes of a Ukrainian victory. In this sense, they view things differently than Washington, which stands to benefit from the rupture of economic and political relations between the EU and Russia. 

Then there's some of the Eastern European EU members, who are vociferous supporters of Kiev. However, they are net recipients of Brussels' largesse and therefore aren’t likely to be stuck footing the bill for the current mess.

Macron said during a joint news conference in Kiev that the three leaders “are doing everything so that Ukraine alone can decide its fate.” Meanwhile, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi added that their main message in talks with Zelensky was that they want to see Ukraine as part of the bloc.

France, Germany, Italy and Romania have all now called for an immediate grant to Ukraine of EU-member candidate status. Becoming a full member of the EU could take years, 15 to 20 years, as Macron’s Minister for European Affairs, Clement Beaune, has said. Macron himself has told the French parliament that it could take “several decades.” 

No one realistically thinks that this is going to be a quick process. No country that has foreign-trained Neo-Nazis folded into its army, or holding any kind of political influence, as they do in Ukraine, is going to be given the EU’s rubber stamp. Nor is a country whose leader demands deadly weapons every time he shows up on a Zoom call. But dangling the ‘carrot’ of EU membership in front of Zelensky, who frankly is a loose cannon, is one way to get him under control and get him to the negotiating table on the EU’s terms.

The notion of EU candidacy – which Zelensky has made clear he desperately wants – gives the EU leverage, all while being able to maintain that “Ukraine alone is deciding its fate,” as Macron says, and gives Zelensky a face-saving reason to seek an end to the conflict. 

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.