Volodymyr Zelenskiy this week gave a rare interview to a foreign news outlet. The whole discussion, published on August 25 by Euronews, is largely unremarkable. There’s one quote worth talking about, however, because it touches on one of the great unsaid issues of Ukrainian politics:
"I think the European Union does want Ukraine to be a partner and it does want Ukraine in the EU. Not all the EU member states want it, it is true, not all countries. It seems to me that they are not 100% confident in Ukraine. [...] What is important for the Ukrainian people is to make Europe’s position on Ukraine 100% clear. And I asked many European leaders this question - what do you want Ukrainians to do, step by step, to become an EU member? And when the Ukrainians get this answer, they’ll see how much time we need for it, if we are able to do it all and when we will do it."
Ukraine’s alignment with the West has become an inescapable aspect of the country’s post-Maidan politics and national discourse, and one that is ultimately contingent on two goals, often bundled into one: for Ukraine to become a member of the EU, as well as a member of NATO. Back in 2014, then-president Petro Poroshenko vowed that Ukraine would apply to join the EU in 2020 (Voice of America); Five years later, a claim that he would “prepare Ukraine for joining NATO and the EU by the end of [his] second presidential term” became one of his key campaign promises (Baltic Times). It’s not just Poroshenko, of course: the prospect of joining NATO and the EU has shaped almost all aspects of Ukraine’s political life.
In this context, the fact that Ukraine has little to no chance of joining either the European Union or NATO in the next decade – and limited chances beyond that – is danced around, hinted at, whispered about, but almost never explicitly discussed.
Hinting at this very carefully is what Zelenskiy does when he says "not all EU member states" want Ukraine in the Union. But the Ukrainian president goes further than that: by asking Europe to make its position “100% clear”, he is alluding to the fact that Ukrainian politicians weren’t the first to adopt this uneasy stance over whether or not Ukraine could or would join the EU – European officials were. Even before the 2014 revolution and the fall of Viktor Yanukovych, EU countries failed to agree on whether the Association Agreement represented a stepping stone towards EU membership or, rather, a way of anchoring countries that were never meant to actually join the Union. The issue has never really been resolved, something that could become increasingly problematic in the future.