French president Emmanuel Macron has for the first time called for Ukraine to be granted a Nato membership “path” at a critical summit over the future of the alliance and how best to defend Europe against Russian aggression.
Ukraine’s longstanding demand to enter the US-led military alliance is seen by Kyiv and its allies as a core part of the country’s postwar future, but the timeline and the means to achieve that have divided Nato’s members.
Asked at a security conference in Bratislava on Wednesday if he would support bringing Ukraine into Nato, Macron said discussions were taking place and would continue at the alliance’s summit in Lithuania in July. But he admitted it would be difficult to achieve consensus on full membership, so instead he advocated a new approach, potentially along the lines of how the US backs Israel with multiyear commitments to provide specific weapons and support.
Ukraine will need “strong, concrete and tangible security guarantees” so its allies “will have to build something between the security provided to Israel and a full-fledged membership”, Macron said. “We need something much more substantial and we need a path towards membership.”
Poland has already floated the idea of extending security guarantees to Kyiv similar to the ones enjoyed by Israel, but France had not spoken out about this concept. In 2008, Paris and Berlin blocked an attempt by Washington to grant Ukraine a “membership action plan” — a road map to Nato accession — and instead agreed that Kyiv would join at some point in the future, without a concrete timeline.
Macron’s appearance at the Globsec conference in Slovakia has been cast by French officials as a concerted effort to try to undo the growing mistrust among eastern and central European countries that has worsened since the war in Ukraine began last year. Political leaders and analysts in the region have come to see France and Macron as an unreliable ally that has underestimated the threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Some have not forgotten Macron calling Nato “brain-dead” in 2019, and remain wary of France’s frequent calls for Europe to rely less on the United States for its security.
Macron sought to counter such critiques on Wednesday by saying there should be no division between “old Europe” and “new Europe” but only one Europe with a “shared history”.
His call for a “path towards” Nato membership for Ukraine also represents a change in position for France, which alongside Germany and the US had earlier this year pushed back against demands from the UK, Poland and other eastern European members to offer Ukraine some form of tangible “path” to membership at the July summit.
The apparent shift in stance by Paris also follows private signals from US officials that Washington is moderating its position, European diplomats told the Financial Times.
While all allies agree that membership is not possible while the war is ongoing, the UK and others had lobbied for more ambitious language in Vilnius than a restatement of the 2008 affirmation that Ukraine “will become” a member one day.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made clear to Nato leaders that he will not attend the Vilnius summit without concrete security guarantees and a road map for accession, according to people briefed on those conversations.
Marian Majer, the Slovakian state secretary for defence, welcomed Macron’s shift: “I think that it’s a positive message because it confirms France understands how critical the situation is not only for this region but the whole of Europe.” Slovakia supports Kyiv’s full membership as soon as possible.
Former Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev said that Macron’s stop at the Bratislava forum was not enough to dispel the memory in the region of him calling Nato “brain-dead”, although “the positive surprise in this speech is that the word that he used probably most now is Nato”.
“People here in the region are very conscious about the French-German leadership because it failed,” Plevneliev said, blaming the tandem for not standing up to Russia when it invaded Georgia and annexed Crimea.
After Bratislava, Macron was due to travel to Moldova for Thursday’s meeting of the European Political Community, a forum that the French president helped create last year. More than 45 European leaders from within and outside Nato will discuss Ukraine and how to continue supporting Kyiv’s defence.