by Miceál O’Hurley
DUBLIN — Just over 5-weeks since Russia’s escalation of their 8-year long war against Ukraine expanded into its heartland on 24 February, governments across Europe continue to clamour about all the support they are giving Ukraine. Indeed, there is much to celebrate. The humanitarian outpouring has been superlative to date. While Poland has rendered the lion’s share of the aid due to its proximity, that alone does not account for the level of support Ukrainians experience at the hands of their Polish neighbours. Poland’s historic experiences have taught it the enduring value of both civilisation and humanitarianism and it shows in all they are doing. For those who had questions about Poland before it might be worth taking note that amongst all 28 member States, Poland has proven itself authentically European in its values put into practice. This is not to diminish the contributions of other border nations like Moldova. While having received far fewer evacuees from Ukraine, the disproportionate pressure it puts on this tiny country has been enormous. Still, Moldovans have demonstrated support far greater than anyone could have imagined.
But humanitarian support is not really at issue. The European Union (EU) has moved expeditiously to ensure it would quickly provide the same level of humanitarian assistance to embattled Ukraine that it tarried in denying them in terms of defensive aid it largely continues to deny them. There are those critics that point to various areas where humanitarian relief has failed or could be improved. They aren’t entirely wrong. But by-and-large the effort to assist Ukrainians facing the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since the end of World War II has been exceptional, quick and deep. One example is the Temporary Protection Status extended to Ukrainians across the EU. It was a bold and effective step in addressing the crisis. Europe is to be congratulated for its response to Russia’s escalation after 24 February.
Ukraine has been genuinely appreciative. President Volodomyr Zelenskii has gone to great lengths to express his gratitude, and that of the Ukrainian people, for the aid Ukrainian evacuees are receiving. Indeed, the Irish people who have welcomed Ukrainians into their homes and communities have been vocal about their first-hand witness of the appreciation expressed by those they have received. But humanitarian aid wasn’t the issue on Zelenskii’s mind when he spoke to the German Parliament that set-off a brouhaha in Government Houses.
Last week, Ukraine’s President, Zelenskii derided Dublin’s lack of firm support for Ukraine becoming a European Union (EU) member. In his widely covered recounting of pan-European support, Zelenskii described strong support from almost all capitals. When it came to Dublin’s support, the best Zelenskii could muster was, “Ireland — well, almost”.
Unsurprisingly, the Irish political establishment, ever adverse to criticism, immediately sought to play-down Zelenskii’s statement. An Taoiseach Micheál Martin parried dismissively urging the public not to read too much into Zelenskii’s criticism of Ireland, “I am not going to surmise in terms of whatever particular take you would take from the use ‘almost’ or ‘practically’. We are a militarily-neutral country, but again we facilitated the EU Peace Facility, which has been of enormous support to the Ukrainian people… I wouldn’t overstate it, quite frankly.” Martin put him at odds with the ‘rock star’ reputation Zelenskii has genuinely earned for his alacrity in speaking truth to power in capitals across the globe. It is hard to believe that Zelenskii’s prepared and televised remarks, delivered to the German parliament and widely covered across the globe, was not purposeful. He has proven himself a capable leader. Zelenskii is not known for gaffes. It should not be forgotten that he is a lawyer. He is known for speaking his mind. As a seasoned entertainer, he knows how to memorise his lines or at least read from a teleprompter. It is fair to say that Zelenskii meant what he said.
Why is this seemingly small spat so important? It stung because it is perceived to be true both in Kyiv and throughout Europe. By claiming Ireland supports Ukraine’s EU membership it is telling only half of the story.
Consider the ‘exchange’. Zelenskii clearly and meaningfully called-out Ireland for its lukewarm support for Ukraine’s EU membership bid. Ireland simply countered with an answer to a question not asked, one about humanitarian aid and supplies. They are two entirely different issues. Why then did Martin’s resort to addressing Zelenskii’s praise for Ireland’s humanitarian efforts and wholly evade the issue of EU membership? His remarks only seemed to underscore and legitimised Zelenskii’s criticism of Ireland’s weak support for Ukraine’s emergency bid for EU membership. Simply put, it is good debate strategy that could be taken as many things by many people but doesn’t reflect a change in policy. It was about PR.
Prior to 24 February, Dublin took the position that Ukraine wasn’t nearly ready for EU membership. Ukraine was offered a kind of ‘enhanced’ relationship with the EU by means of participation in the Eastern Partnership (EaP). For many, however, the goals of the EaP and what it meant for both Ukraine and the EU remained unclear. Consider the debate in the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade from 21 January 2015, almost 1-year after Russia began its war on Ukraine. Then Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan said the following:
Deputy Durkan and others spoke of a possible EU membership accession and the fact that the current agreements will put the party states firmly along the path of EU membership. EU membership is dealt with on a strictly case-by-case basis in the context of individual applications. The actual participation of states in these agreements or in the Eastern Partnership does not offer candidate status.
Even Deputies sitting on the Foreign Affairs Committee needed to be told by the Foreign Affairs Minister they did not understand the Eastern Partnership. This was not unique to Ireland, but rang true across Europe. In almost every engagement where Ukraine was discussed, there was a script that had the feel of a ‘warning label’ read out declaring that participation in the EaP did not imply any promise of candidate status or a path to EU membership. What then, many asked, was the point of the EaP except to keep Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia at bay?
Ireland, along with the rest of the EU, engaged with Ukraine through the EaP, a product of the EU’s ‘Proximity Policy’. That policy, initiated in the early 2000s when the talk of “EU expansion fatigue” was rampant, sought to provide some EU benefits to EaP membership without specifically not providing any real path to membership. It was, in essence, a ‘never-never-land‘. That it took now Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Charlie Flanagan make clear to his colleagues, such agreements as the EaP do “not offer candidate status”, says something profound about the lack of understanding by the Dáil and the practical usefulness of a programme. It was what lawyers refer to as an “exercise in client management” without any expectation of changed outcome.
And here is the problem in a nutshell – Ukraine was purposefully held at arms-length by instruments designed by the EU, with input from member countries like Ireland, that were never meant to be paths to EU membership. While marketed as instruments that would benefit the countries that entered into the agreements, and undeniably there were benefits, the EaP was designed to create generous economic opportunities of benefit the EU. The key point of the EaP, however, is found in its basis in ‘proximity‘ — it was designed to create a social, democratic and economic buffer between Europe and Russia. Akin to NATO’s dangling of NATO membership before Ukraine without ever working to truly make it a reality, the EaP exacerbated tension between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine’s emergency application for EU membership only reinforces Russia’s concerns. The question is, is it of benefit to Ukraine or Europe?
With the war having escalated after 8-years to the point that it has left almost half of Ukraine’s 44 million people displaced, as a demonstration of solidarity, the EU has celebrated the fact that Ukraine has exercised its right to apply for EU membership at any time, even without a prospectus. This sovereign demonstration of freedom of democratic action is a remarkable pillar of the EU’s character. It speaks well of both the EU and Ukraine. In the final analysis, however, it changes absolutely nothing for Ukraine. Nothing.
Ireland, and the whole of the EU, continue to have the same concerns about Ukraine’s membership in the EU as have existed for the past 8-years. Membership evaluation has only become remarkably more complicated since 24 February. It may even rise-and-fall on today’s elections in Hungary where Russia-embracing strongman Viktor Orban is running for re-election after affirming his support for Moscow amidst the war, albeit complying with most sanctions regimes to date. Be it Budapest alone or capitals from Dublin to Berlin the questions about Ukraine remain and for many in the EU. These questions may differ from country to country, but they remain all the same. All this is beside the still unresolved question about any appetite for further EU expansion. If French President Macron’s reaction to US President Joe Biden’s remarks that Putin should be removed from office are any indicator, Europe believes Putin will survive whatever the outcome of Russia’s war on Ukraine and they are anxious to leave the door open to future dealings with him, despite the atrocities being committed by his government upon the Ukrainian people.
Whatever its prospects for near-or-long-term success, the reality is that Ukraine’s emergency EU membership application was an important act for the Ukrainian people. They are fighting for their democratic rights and there is no better example of their success than their continued ability to exercise their sovereignty on the international stage. Zelenskii instinctively knew this. As a performer he learned to read his audience and react quickly. As a leader, he understood its importance to the national psyche. As a realist, he understands that skeptics, still remain. He purposefully included Ireland among them.
Zelenskii’s criticism of Dublin’s half-hearted embrace of Ukraine’s EU membership application is hardly surprising. As President, he has a mandate to speak candidly where his ambassadors dare not. Zelenskii learned quickly during his Presidency that in diplomatic speak, it is one thing to say “Ireland strongly supports Ukraine’s EU membership application” and yet another thing entirely when that is then qualified with ‘but not now’ or allowing silence to finish the sentence. Martin is a former Foreign Affairs Minister and a capable politician. His resort to defending Ireland’s position on EU membership for Ukraine by talking about Ireland’s humanitarian commitments is a clear yet unconvincing dodge of the central, underlying question about EU membership.
Martin knows all this. His comments were made for public consumption. He didn’t resurrect the Fianna Fail party from its disgraceful past by not being able to read the public mood. He is shrewd and doesn’t want to be seen as half-hearted when besieged Ukraine is at issue and while the Irish mood is still strongly in support of Ukrainians, even if not Ukraine. Nevertheless, any claim by Dublin of supporting Ukraine’s EU membership while not completing the statement with terms like “immediate”, “forthwith” or “urgent” is either purposefully ambiguous or simply disingenuous.
Ukraine deserves Ireland to be as candid as Zelenskii was in making his remarks. Zelenskii is a President of a nation at war for its survival. He is now used to hearing tough news. Like his heroic soldiers in the field, Zelenskii knows he can only make good decisions based on reliable information. This requires clarity and confirmation as much on the battlefield as it does in the halls of power.
It is time for Ireland and every European capital to announce, in unambiguous terms, where it stands on supporting EU membership for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. This requires a proclamation of immediacy as part of that announcement. Having been dangled like a worm on a hook by NATO in its relations with Russia for so long, and kept at arms-length by the EU’s ‘Proximity Policy’ to its own detriment for years, Ukraine deserves an unambiguous understanding of its prospects for EU membership. It is the very least the West can give them.
Dublin must stop infantalising Ukraine by continuing to try to determine what is best for it long enough to make abundantly clear where Ireland stands on Ukraine’s EU membership prospects not only in terms of supporting it in principle but also in practice and timing. If Martin is sincere in Ireland’s support for Ukraine’s EU membership bid he should announce it now, by removing all doubt or question and cease to conflate it with issues surrounding humanitarian support or the EU Peace Facility. Clarity would be helpful before Zelenskii speaks to the combined Houses of the Oireachtas on Wednesday at 10:00 a.m. GMT.
When next asked if Ireland supports Ukraine’s EU membership request, Martin could remove all doubt and truly put the issue to rest by making good on his word by saying, “Yes. And immediately, without precondition or qualification”. Anything less would speak for itself.