"Ukraine Should Join EU Now or Might Risk Its Future as a Country." Interview with MEP Auštrevičius

Tuesday, 12 December 2023 — , European Pravda
Credit: European Pravda

Petras Auštrevičius is one of the most devoted advocates for Ukraine in the European Parliament, where he has been working for nearly 10 years. He was also a Lithuanian diplomat and the chief negotiator for EU accession. Lithuania agreed to the terms of its membership under his leadership.

Additionally, he is one of the official spokespeople for the Renew Europe liberal group in the European Parliament. Ukraine's President's party Sluha Narodu listens closely to the group, as they hold "sister party" status in Europe.

He considers the main task of Ukraine's friends in the EU to help achieve victory at the EU summit, which will kick off in Brussels on Thursday, 14 December. At stake is the decision to start negotiations on Ukraine's EU accession. Auštrevičius believes that this decision will be crucial for the history and future development of Ukraine. He warns that Kyiv will face blackmail similar to what we are currently seeing from Viktor Orbán.


"We will hear voices which might be reserved towards Ukrainian membership even after the war"

Mr. Auštrevičius, I will ask you some quite difficult questions. When Ukraine will join the EU and NATO? Let us start with NATO. 

These two memberships are a bit different. Let's be frank, NATO membership is rather about the political will to accept a new member, and about the readiness of the North Atlantic Alliance for this. 

… or the United States? 

Much of that. 75% of all military investments and military power comes from the USA, so they have a big say. The European allies might have a bigger say, but not for the time being.

We should work together with the US to agree on Ukrainian membership.

We will hear some voices, which might be reserved towards Ukrainian membership, even after the war. They will say: "No, now we need some time to see how Ukraine develops, what is their policy line, and only then we will make a decision".

I think we have to make a political decision as soon as possible. My invitation is not to wait, not to postpone all the discussions among allies for the summer.

It will be too late. Now! We have to discuss it now.

To prepare ourselves rightly for the moment of the NATO Washington Summit. 

Of course, there are issues, which have to be sorted out in approximation of Ukrainian military decision-making and political supervision to the NATO standards. You're reforming! You are doing that, I would say, at rocket speed.

Many countries might be jealous to see such an advance of Ukraine but it comes at a very high price.

We understand that NATO might make this decision very quickly. 

Once the war has ended? 

Not necessarily. 

"Most demanding things will be about most expensive sectors"

Let us talk about the EU. Would you expect Ukraine to join the EU before 2030? 2027 or 2025? What is your assessment? 

EU membership with the final festivity is of course nice. The sooner it comes to Ukraine – the better. But your membership is about transformation. The accession process is a value in itself, once it begins. Ukraine will need some time to adjust to sometimes very bureaucratic, sometimes very precise norms and requirements of the European Union membership.

I see it as a value in itself that starts of negotiations and the accession process.

It will take time.

In the European Union decision-making process, money and budget sometimes tell you, when and how. Now we live in the ‘multiannual financial framework’, so-called ‘multiannual seven-year budget of European Union 2021-2027. I don’t see money in that framework for Ukraine. Because... 

You never expected it to happen. 

We didn't expect it to come so quickly.

Ukraine is a record breaker in this regard. I mean, what comes [in terms of] application and candidate status and now decision on the start [of the negotiations]. No money, for example, on agriculture. If you become a member of the European Union, you need to be given direct payments. Maybe not 100% and surely not 100% from the EU average, but let’s say 10%.

But Ukraine is a big country. A lot of agriculture!

It will be automatically billions. We have to preplan that money. Otherwise, the membership of Ukraine will be not fully fledged.

So that’s why I don’t see it by 2027, [even if] negotiations might progress very well. I don't know how much of your progress will be achieved by 27. I don't know, maybe a lot, maybe more than 50%.

Is 2028, the beginning of a new budgetary period, a realistic goal?

That would be a great achievement, very great achievement. I can tell you openly because it would need Ukraine to go through major transformations. Most demanding things will be about most expensive sectors, which needs transformative investments and needs time to implement high standards. For example, the Environment protection. 

We will have to rebuild our largest polluting enterprises from scratch. The task may look simpler in this sense.

Yes, yes. Easy but expensive.

Maybe and most probably Ukraine will be given some additional transitional periods, let's say 5-6 years or more to reach us, as we had the same story. We became EU members in 2004, but our longest transitional period ended up in 2016! It was the energy sector.

It might be excellent to finish the negotiations in 2028. We can have it in mind. It's a great time limit you set for yourself. But the EU must reform as well, frankly speaking.

"Don't expect everything will be bright and rosy on your way to the EU"

Some in Ukraine wonder if our European future is so distant, why should we be so concerned about it now? Perhaps it is worth postponing it and focusing on the war? The negotiations, they say, can start later. Why this needs to be done right now, in 2023?

Don't repeat the strategic historical mistake Ukraine made in the beginning of the 1990s. When Ukraine was relaxed, looking at the bright future with so-called good neighbourly relations, brotherly relations with the eastern neighbour. We see where we came to. 

It's a decision which, probably, present generations will not completely understand, but future generations will appreciate.

I think your strategy must be like that: never relax. Push as much as possible.

Don't expect everything bright and rosy.

There will be countries as now, for example, Orbán’s government, which has every time some new condition. Some negative messaging towards Ukraine.

Should it deter you and push you away from your strategic goal? No!

Orbán came and will go away in history.

We are speaking about a historical chance for Ukraine to survive as a nation

in different conditions among friends, not next to your enemy, who has been posing an existential threat to you.

Political lobbyism must be at the highest speed. You should not stop sending a strong message. Yes, now it's a difficult time for you. At the same time, there is so much sympathy for Ukraine. This is massive in the European Union.

Use this historical momentum! 

Is it realistic to overcome Hungarian veto in December? 

Viktor Orbán is not just a headache for Ukraine. It's a biggest headache for the European Union. We suffer, too. We suffer because of underperformance on political criteria, rule of law and media freedoms. It's a shameful situation for us.

The European Union has more channels to speak with Orbán than Ukraine does. We have to sort it out. What’s going on is a great problem for us. My colleagues in the Hungarian opposition, the party Momentum, have absolutely different understanding of how important for Ukraine this decision is. They blame Orbán for delaying, for bringing new obstacles for Ukraine's EU integration. 

What Hungary does now, is absolutely unpleasant and painful. But look at the future. Never stop. You will have even more barriers on your way because geopolitical situation and sometimes even economic is not getting any easier. 

People often ask in Ukraine why the EU still tolerates Orbán. Hungary is not a democracy any longer. It does not meet the Copenhagen criteria. So why not to expel it?

It’s not the European Union, which organises and runs the national elections. The EU can demand full transparency, can demand free and fair election but Hungarian citizens and national parties decide.

It would be the biggest mistake if Brussels, I mean a Brussels bubble, indicates to Hungarian voters: don't vote for this, vote for that. It would be a disaster. 

But what about punishing the country? 

It is already in. Hungary is already not given 13 billion from European funds. It's a lot. Already for two years. Does Orbán’s government need this 13 billion? Of course! That's why the economy in Hungary is not really going well: inflation is high, unemployment is high.

So, what is the privilege of having special relations with Russia when gasoline in Hungary is probably the most expensive in the European Union! It's a strange situation. 

Because no one else loves Orbán. 

Only Moscow (laughs).

"Ukraine does not have alternatives"

Regarding EU reform. The process of decision-making in the European Union, the working principles of the European Commission, and the system of sanctions for countries that do not meet the standards all indeed need changes. However, the European Union is likely to get stuck in reforming itself. Does this mean that Ukraine's accession could be postponed until this reform is completed?

We are talking not about cosmetics but about essential reforms like moving from veto to qualified majority.

It takes time to reform the EU treaties. I will remind you that the last reform was so-called Lisbon Treaty 15 years ago. It doesn't happen every year. It doesn't happen every second or fifth year. You have to prepare your reform. You have to make a consensus. You have to get an agreement and support from Member States, because otherwise it will be a failure. 

Let's be honest: the reform of EU treaties is not realistic at the moment. If Ukraine is forced to wait for this, we may never join the EU.

There are two schools now in the discussions.

The first one really insists that we do reform first and change everything, then we have good time for enlargement.

The ideal world.

That's probably a scenario you're afraid of. The second school is speaking about a simultaneous process, hand in hand. I am part of the school. I think we are capable of doing this.

It should be parallel, hand in hand and we don't make a condition like no enlargement until we reform this killing veto and going to qualified majority.

Do you see that this second approach is winning? 

I hope so. Now, by the way, we are drafting a new report. I'm one of the report core rapporteurs. We have sometimes fragile support, but we are going though consensus building exercise. It takes time. Smart decisions needs to be polished and agreed among the political groups.

The European elections are in 2024. Don’t you expect that it will be completely different political groups in the European Parliament after them?

Yes, I think the composition will change. Some groups might increase, some not. I still realistically assessing that mainstream political groups like Conservatives, Social Democrats, Greens, or Liberal like us will keep a majority.

When, in your opinion, we can say that Ukraine’s path towards EU membership has become irreversible?

70% or more of Ukrainians support EU membership. This is during the very hard times when the EU gives very little to you. There is a macrofinancial assistance and military support. It's important, but a full-fledged EU membership is something different.

Then you are equal among equals. You have access into the single market.

Trade and economic development, it's the best instrument for change of the country. Because we know: families may have higher incomes, better jobs, better infrastructure.

Frankly, Ukraine has no alternative. It's very hard in this situation to understand this, but it's a historical moment.

Now or never. If not now – you might risk your future as a country, your sovereignty and territorial integrity.

I hope our negotiations will be very constructive. We will be not just demanding.

I believe that you will be good students in a good sense. Ukrainians are very catchy in this regard, very catchy. I don't think they will need some long lessons and an introduction into the procedures of the European Parliament. Welcome, and you will be welcomed.  

Interviewed by Sergiy Sydorenko

Editor European Pravda

Video by Volodymyr Oliinyk

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