The EU may have united, but it is still divided, says JONATHAN SAXTY | Express a comment | Comment

After mobilizing, many residents of Budapest and Warsaw are no doubt hoping for a reprieve in their long-running dispute with Brussels over rule of law issues. In a moment of crisis, many will be adamant that now is not the time to split within the bloc.

“The [European Commission] should immediately stop all sanctions against Poland,” Patryk Jaki, a MEP from the United Right coalition, said recently, perhaps encouraged by the praise that European Council President Charles Michel gave his country on Wednesday.

Yet on the very day that Mr Michel spoke, the European Commission set out rules relating to ‘breaches of the principles of the rule of law’ and how this can ‘affect or seriously risk affecting sound financial management of the Union budget”.

This was surely aimed at Hungary and Poland, suggesting that amid the fanfare over European unity, the division between the EU’s progressive western half and its conservative east remains.

Only last month, the European Court of Justice dismissed complaints from Budapest and Warsaw against a law that ties EU funds to apparent democratic standards. Reacting at the time, Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga said the decision “is living proof that Brussels is abusing its power”.

While media across Europe have praised Ukraine’s neighbours, no one should deny that the cultural schism within the EU persists.

Moreover, despite Latvian President Egils Levits’ assertion that the EU should bypass the usual “bureaucratic procedures” and grant Kyiv candidate status before a detailed discussion of reforms, EU officials played down the hopes for Ukraine’s immediate EU membership.

To begin with, Ukraine’s EU membership would require the support of all member states, which may not materialize.

Just minutes after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s impassioned speech in the European Parliament – where he pushed for Ukraine’s membership – Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo appeared to dampen immediate hopes for Kyiv.

While calling for a close partnership, Mr De Croo said that “EU membership is something completely different and a much longer process”. Although Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said earlier that “we want them to [Ukraine] in the European Union’, she sounded an equally cautious tone to Mr De Croo after Mr Zelenskyy’s speech.

To begin with, granting membership status to Ukraine would probably ruffle the feathers of other EU candidate countries such as Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia if they did not receive similar exemption. Granting an accelerated procedure to these countries could also prove very controversial.

It is perhaps unsurprising that EU Member States from Central and Eastern Europe were the most enthusiastic about Ukraine’s membership, given that Ukraine – a religious and conservative – is considered to share the values ​​of the countries of this region. However, Western European member states may fear that Ukraine will soon become another Hungary or Poland.

Despite all the criticism of European unity, Ukraine’s hopes are likely to be dashed in the short term, and Central and Eastern European countries may decide on an alternative.

Nothing, for example, prevents the creation of a parallel Central and Eastern European Union, nor anything per se to prevent free movement between EU states and a third country (Great Britain and Ireland after Brexit, for example, retain a common travel area).

Ukraine – like its regional neighbors within the EU – can expect a lot from Brussels, but the latter is unlikely to deliver anytime soon. Despite all the triumphant rhetoric, the EU remains a house divided. Europe may have united amid the shock of war, but the rift between the two parts of the EU is unlikely to be bridged anytime soon.

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