Emerging Europe This Week

Ukraine, Moldova begin long EU journey

Catch up quickly with the stories from Central and Eastern Europe that matter, this week led by news of both Ukraine and Moldova beginning EU membership negotiations.

Russia’s war on Ukraine

The European Union on Tuesday launched membership talks with Ukraine, a decade after Russian troops seized the Crimean Peninsula to deter the country from moving closer to the West.

Ukraine’s accession negotiations were set in motion at an intergovernmental conference in Luxembourg. Just a few hours later, Moldova also launched its membership talks. While the events are a major milestone on their European paths, the talks could take years to conclude.

In opening remarks presented via video-link, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal described it as “a historic day” that marks “a new chapter” in his country’s ties with the bloc, particularly as the war with Russia rages on.

“We fully understand that there is still much work ahead of us on the path to accession. We are ready for it. We have demonstrated that we can move swiftly and achieve the impossible,” Shmyhal said.

On Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Brussels to sign a series of EU-Ukraine security agreements and appeal for more military support.

The agreements are not mutual defence pacts, and in essence encapsulate what the 27-nation bloc has been doing for the country in terms of financial, military and other assistance since Russian forces invaded in February 2022.

Several countries already have similar agreements with Ukraine, offering a long-term commitment to help Kyiv, including once its war with Russia is over. Zelensky and US President Joe Biden signed one such pact earlier this month which will run for the next decade.

Ukraine’s president also called on European Union leaders to make good on their pledges to provide military equipment to his war-ravaged country, just days after the bloc launched membership talks with his government.

“We have to work on next steps,” he told reporters in Brussels. “The urgent things—air defence, that is one.”

In a less welcome development, the EU is set to reimpose tariffs on Ukrainian sugar and egg imports from today, using an “emergency brake” designed to appease farmers who protested across the bloc earlier this year.

The move comes just two days after the bloc opened membership talks with Kyiv, whose armed forces are fighting a Russian war of aggression.

Tariffs of 89 euros per tonne of Ukrainian oats were reintroduced last week and will last until June 2025, with a similar decision on eggs and sugar due Friday, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The reimposition of tariffs underline how difficult Kyiv’s accession negotiations will be. Ukraine is an agricultural powerhouse which can produce food more cheaply than EU member states and would still become the main beneficiary of farm subsidies—a position currently held by France.

Poland and the Baltic states this week urged the European Union to strengthen its eastern border, warning in a joint letter to Brussels of a “looming threat” from Russia and Belarus.

The four EU members are staunch allies of Ukraine, which has been fighting a fully-fledged Russian invasion for more than two years.

They are trenchant critics of Moscow, who they accuse of orchestrating hybrid attacks including “intimidation, instrumentalisation of migrants, sabotage, disinformation, foreign information manipulation and interference, (and) cyber-attacks.”

In their letter, seen by the news agency AFP on Thursday, the leaders of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania urged the 27-nation EU to “spend more and coordinate on defence initiatives within the EU and with NATO.”

“Building a defence infrastructure system along the EU external border with Russia and Belarus will address the dire and urgent need to secure the EU from military and hybrid threats,” they said.

Other news from the region

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, a fierce critic of Russia, was this week formally nominated as the European Union’s next foreign policy chief, one of Europe’s three most powerful and influential political posts. Trailed for some time, the nomination—which now needs the approval of the European Parliament—was confirmed at this week’s meeting of the European Council. Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen was meanwhile nominated to continue as European Commission president, with Portugal’s António Costa taking over as president of the European Council.

The eastward expansion of Europe’s single currency suffered a setback this week after Bulgaria and Romania failed to meet the economic criteria needed to adopt the euro. The decision announced by the European Central Bank and European Commission on Wednesday means Bulgaria’s ambition of joining the Eurozone at the start of next year will be frustrated. Their review also confirmed Romania’s hopes of euro membership remain as distant as ever. Four other countries assessed, Sweden, Poland, Czechia, Hungary, are not seeking euro membership.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk this week confirmed that a planned “mega-airport” in central Poland, the Solidarity Transport Hub, or CPK, which was a flagship project of the former ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, will go ahead. The decision ends months of uncertainty over the plans following December’s change of government. However, Tusk also accused PiS of wasteful spending on the project and said that the new government would place greater emphasis on developing regional rail, road and air infrastructure to make Poland “one big megalopolis”.

The European Union is weighing whether to cut financial support to Georgia if it does not withdraw a new law that critics say will curb media freedom and harms the country’s chances of joining the bloc, the EU’s top diplomat said on Monday. Current EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the 27-nation bloc is considering “putting a hold to our financial assistance to the government” in Tbilisi and downgrading political contacts with it. It was not clear how much money would be affected. “This can be done immediately, but we will continue looking at the situation,” Borrell told reporters.

Georgia’s parliament on Thursday gave its initial approval to a set of bills containing sweeping curbs on LGBT rights, including bans on the “propaganda” of same-sex relationships and gender reassignment surgery. The package, which was proposed by the ruling Georgian Dream party and which could outlaw Pride events and public displays of the LGBT rainbow flag, was approved by a majority of deputies. It must pass two more readings before becoming law. Parliamentary speaker Shalva Papuashvili said the bills are necessary to control “LGBT propaganda” which he said was “altering traditional relations”.

Slovakia’s parliament approved a package of legislation on Thursday meant to boost security for leading politicians and others following an assassination attempt on populist Prime Minister Robert Fico. The measures, which were approved by the coalition government on June 12, are set to take effect July 15 after expected approval by President Peter Pellegrini, Fico’s close ally. Fico is currently recovering after being shot in the abdomen as he greeted supporters on May 15 in the town of Handlova. The assailant was arrested.

Preservationists are accusing government agencies in Azerbaijan of architectural vandalism as the capital, Baku, prepares to host the annual United Nations climate conference. The UN conclave of environmentalists will convene in Baku in November. Azerbaijani authorities are already hard at work sprucing up the host city. But according to local architects and others, their methods to improve the city’s look are doing more harm than good. One architect, Dilgam Ismayilov, has alleged that up to 200 buildings in Baku have been restored using improper techniques and materials.

Lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan this week approved the second and third readings of a bill requiring all judges in the Central Asian country to speak Kyrgyz at no less than the B1 intermediate level. Those without that level of proficiency will not be eligible to serve as judges. In July 2023, the country’s president, Sadyr Japarov, signed into law a bill that obliges all officials to be able to speak Kyrgyz for official purposes. Kyrgyz, a Turkic language, is Kyrgyzstan’s state language, while Russian has the status of an official language.

Photo: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with European Council President Charles Michel ahead of a council meeting in Brussels on Thursday. © European Union.

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