Netherlands now voicing support for Ukraine’s EU candidacy

The Netherlands will not object to Ukraine becoming a candidate for European Union membership, said Foreign Affairs Minister Wopke Hoekstra. He spoke with reporters on Friday after the regular weekly meeting of Cabinet ministers.

“As a Cabinet, we have said, ‘We find this equitable. We think this is sensible. So let’s embrace this for the sake of unity in Europe. The Netherlands is positive about this,” Hoekstra stated.

Earlier in the day, the European Commission recommended granting Ukraine candidate member status. However, the government in Kyiv still has to meet a number of conditions before the real consultations in preparation for membership begin. A decision on their candidacy can come as early as next week, at a summit meeting of EU leaders in Brussels next week.

Moldova, which also feels threatened by the Russian incursion into Ukraine, may also become a candidate member, the European Commission said. That country has even more work to do than Ukraine. Georgia has moved closer to its goal, but will not be eligible for candidate status until it first implements several reforms, according to the EU’s executive body. 

Ukraine and Moldova need the consent of all 27 current member states to become candidate members. The Netherlands, but also Denmark, Sweden and Portugal previously expressed reservations. Denmark and others have sounded more upbeat in recent days, especially since the three largest member states, Germany, France and Italy, put their full support behind Ukrainian candidacy on Thursday.

It will then take years before Ukraine and Moldova can join the EU. The countries must then meet the Copenhagen Criteria, a firm requirement that is not subject to negotiation, Hoekstra said. “They are not processes that start today and finish tomorrow.” Croatia was the last country to join the EU in 2013.

The Dutch government has thus far declined to say what position it would take on the candidate for membership. Previously, it was clear about its “great hesitations” regarding candidacy, but the Cabinet wanted to await the advice of the European Commission which it said it would review with an open mind. Prime Minister Mark Rutte said at his weekly press conference that he has not caved in, and stressed that the Cabinet does not want to see the process rushed.

The stamp of approval for EU membership candidacy has been a fervent wish from Ukraine, especially since Russia invaded the country. This sentiment remains in a scenario where it takes years, or even decades before Ukraine becomes a full member of the bloc, in part due to the devastating war there.

Rutte believes that the European Commission has found a “sensible compromise.” Ukraine still has “a lot of homework” to do before accession talks can begin, he said.

Even before the war, Ukraine was nowhere near meeting the requirements for EU membership. The country is still tasked with making progress on seven points, like reducing corruption, strengthening democracy, and strengthening the rule of law. Many European rules still need to be implemented, and the Ukrainian economy is not yet ready for the European single market, although Ukraine has become more and more entwined with the EU in recent years.

Candidate members must meet these conditions step by step and receive guidance and financial support. The European Commission is unsure when Ukraine and Moldova can embark on this path.

An important objection that the Netherlands has always argued, is that it would be unfair to push out other candidate countries that have been waiting patiently for years  in order to make way for Ukraine. At least three of them, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia, expressed their support for Ukraine last week. The European Commission is also hopeful that it is just “a matter of days” before the delays for North Macedonia and Albania can be cleared.

Ukraine and Moldova must follow the road to EU membership “by the book”, emphasized European Commission leader Ursula von der Leyen. Dressed in the yellow-blue of both the European and Ukrainian flags, she tried to assuage another concern. The same requirements apply to the new prospective members as to others. Their bids will only develop if they make progress. They can even lose their candidate status if they slide backwards instead.

Nevertheless, since it applied for EU membership immediately after the Russian invasion, the European Union has guided Ukraine towards candidate status in record time. Despite warnings from the Netherlands not to make the accession procedure political, but to keep it as a cold, factual assessment of the matter. However, it has become more common lately for Brussels to push timetables aside to give way to strategic considerations.

Awarding the candidate membership is an “important signal that we support them,” said Rutte. He reiterated that it is “crucial” that Russia be stopped and that Ukraine win the war. If we don’t do anything “you have to wonder who will be the next victim” of the Russian aggression, Rutte stated.

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