This article is part of our special report Liberals look to Europe’s future.
Liberal leaders urged the EU to give a green light and the strongest possible encouragement for Ukraine’s bid to join the bloc, alongside a broader overhaul of EU foreign and defence policy at their annual Congress in Dublin.
The European Commission is expected to issue its opinion on whether Ukraine should be awarded EU candidate status in the coming weeks, followed by a decision by the European Council.
Speaking at the Congress of the Alliance of Liberal and Democrat parties for Europe (ALDE), Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel gave their strong backing for Ukraine to be given candidate status in June.
Martin pointed to the rapid economic development made by Ireland since it joined the EU in 1972 as an example of what EU membership could bring. “We have witnessed over fifty years the transformation of Ireland from its membership of the EU,” he said, adding that Ireland would not be a blocker of further EU enlargement and integration.
“Ukraine is obviously the main topic because it touches everything, starting with the question: what can we do to help, and to the question of EU expansion, and the European elections in 2024,” Kira Rudik, the leader of the Golos party, told EURACTIV.
Rudik, who was elected on Saturday as a vice-president of ALDE, also played down the significance of the recent proposal by French President Emmanuel Macron to set up a ‘European political community’ as an alternative to full EU membership which, Macron indicated, could apply to the likes of the United Kingdom and Ukraine.
“President Macron is getting ready for elections. I want him to get himself an as anti-Russian parliament as possible. Then we will talk,” she said. “Once he has won the election, his hands will not be tied.”
However, she stressed the importance of the EU sending a positive signal to Ukraine and other eastern partnership countries.
“Putin’s main propaganda point is that the West does not need you, the West will betray you, the West despises you and treats you like second class citizens,” Rudik told EURACTIV.
A resolution passed by the Liberal party called for full support for Ukraine’s EU candidacy, alongside the continuation of stringent economic and political sanctions against the Russian Federation.
It added that Russia should be “obliged to pay reparations and contributions to compensate for loss and damage inflicted by the Russian invasion”, and that charges against Russian leaders should immediately be brought before the International Court of Justice.
The applications for NATO membership by Sweden and Finland have also prompted a rethink of European defence and alliances, said Guri Melby, leader of the Venstre Norway Party.
“We have problems coordinating and that makes us weak. We hope in the Liberal party that the decisions by Sweden and Finland will reopen the debate on EU membership for Norway,” said Melby.
“In order to be resilient, we need more alliances,” she said, adding that it was now important for Norway to be more integrated with EU defence policies.
The war has also contributed to reopening the question of EU foreign and defence policy, and the pace of decision making.
EU enlargement has stalled since Croatia became the latest country to join the EU in 2013, with the four Western Balkan candidates having made little progress towards EU accession. The broader enlargement process should be kickstarted, said Michał Kobosko, first vice-president of Polska2050.
“We will be stronger when we will be bigger. We cannot keep talking about expanding the EU but must put it into action. There is no grey area in Europe. We need to let these countries know that there is a clear way for them to the EU,” he said.
Meanwhile, others pointed to the need to speed up EU decision making, set up a genuine European defence system and scrap national vetoes on foreign and defence policy.
Kalle Laanet, Estonia’s defence minister, pointed out that in late May, Baltic defence ministers agreed a communique on how to operate military forces across the three states, a model that could be copied elsewhere across the bloc.
“We cannot rely on America forever. We need quicker political decisions and shorter time to execute military orders between our member states,” said Michał Kobosko, a process which, he added, had become a “bureaucratic nightmare”.
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]