EU risks creating ‘false expectations’ with Ukraine’s EU candidacy, Portugal PM says

The EU should focus on providing immediate help to Ukraine rather than engaging in “legal debates” about whether to designate the country as a candidate for membership, according to Portugal’s prime minister.

António Costa said in an interview that candidate status — the beginning of an accession process that would take many years — would not solve Ukraine’s urgent problems and risked creating “false expectations”. He feared the EU would only display its divisions over the issue, handing a gift to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

His comments underlined the disquiet in some EU capitals about granting candidate status to Kyiv despite the pleas of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who regards a membership path as a guarantee of Ukraine’s sovereignty and an anchor for its recovery. EU leaders are due to decide on the matter at a summit in Brussels on June 23-24.

Costa supported a “European perspective” for Ukraine and he did not explicitly oppose candidate status, saying he was waiting for a European Commission assessment this week. But he said it was “essential to answer the emergency Ukraine and the Ukrainian people are living now”. Even if Ukraine was granted candidate status, “the real problems remain to be solved”, he said.

“My focus is to obtain in the next European Council a clear commitment on the urgent support and to build a long-term platform to support the recovery of Ukraine,” he told the Financial Times in London. “This is my main priority. The most important are not legal debates about Ukraine but practical deliveries.”

“For this clear and immediate support, we don’t need to open at this moment a negotiation or procedure that will take a lot of years — [French president Emmanuel] Macron says decades, I don’t say decades — but certainly a long long time. The great risk is to create false expectations that become bitter disappointment. Less legal debates, more practical solutions.”

Costa, a socialist, has been Portugal’s prime minister since November 2015, making him the longest-serving centre-left government leader in Europe. In elections in January, his party obtained an absolute majority and no longer requires the support of two smaller far-left parties to govern. He is touted as a potential future candidate for one of the EU’s top jobs.

Costa said the unity the EU had demonstrated since Putin launched his full-scale invasion on February 24 had been a “defeat” for Moscow and it was essential to maintain it.

“The best support that the European Union can give to Ukraine is to keep its unity. The best we can offer is European unity.”

Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president, has strongly advocated putting Ukraine on the first step towards membership, which the commission is expected to formally recommend on Friday. But EU capitals are divided. Dutch premier Mark Rutte told the Netherlands’ parliament last month that many EU members were opposed. Poland, the Baltic states and Italy are in favour.

Sceptics said it would be unfair to give precedence to Ukraine over Georgia and Moldova. It would also raise questions over the status of Serbia, Montenegro and Turkey, whose candidacies have been stuck for many years, or Albania and North Macedonia, with whom negotiations have not started.

Costa said an idea floated by Macron last month for a European Political Community, a looser form of association for countries that do not want membership or which do not meet the full entry criteria, “could be a good idea to solve a lot of problems”.

“We need to find different ways to be partners, allies and friends on the same continent,” he said.

Costa was in London to sign a bilateral agreement with the UK intended to boost trade, investment and research co-operation. After Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic, it was “time to relaunch” a relationship between two countries, which first signed a friendship treaty in 1372.

He repeatedly declined to comment about the UK government’s threat to override the protocol governing trade with Northern Ireland, a crucial part of Britain’s Brexit deal with the EU, saying it was the commission’s role to “negotiate” EU matters with London.

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