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ROME – On the same day that the European Commission issued its recommendation that Ukraine be granted formal status within the European Union, the bishops of Europe urged leaders to develop a realistic enlargement plan that includes the war-torn country as well as others that have long been on the waiting list.

In a June 17 statement, the Commission of European Union Bishops’ Conferences (COMECE) said the war in Ukraine has not only caused immeasurable suffering to innocent people, but it has also “greatly challenged the vision of a rules-based international order” and has “shaken up the whole security architecture in Europe and beyond.”

The bishops condemned what they said is the erosion of multilateralism, a diminishing respect for human rights and values of peaceful coexistence, and a rise in the logic of “a great power confrontation.”

They suggested that the European Union has been weak and, so far, ineffective, saying that despite the EU’s aspirations to become a stronger global actor in the pursuit of peace, member states “have often not been able to find the necessary unity to take decisive and coherent actions, due to indifference, naivety, and the prevalence of particular economic or national interests over the common good.”

This was especially apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, the bishops said, insisting that the coronavirus and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have “held up a mirror to us,” making leaders of the EU realize “how crucial its role is to offer a renewed strategic vision for stability, justice and peace to the European continent and to the world.”

Despite their critiques, the bishops also praised the EU and its 27 member states for the support they have provided to Ukraine and its people, and they urged both the EU and the broader international community to continue efforts “for an end of the war, with a free, secure and independent Ukraine in its internationally recognized borders.”

“While lasting peace will only be possible on the basis of a negotiated agreement, the right of Ukraine to legitimate self-defense in line with the principles of international law cannot be denied,” they said.

They called for the building of “a new architecture of peace” in Europe and throughout the world, “with a strong value basis as well as respect for human dignity and human rights of every person at its core.”

To this end, the bishops urged European leaders and decision makers to both renew and implement their commitment to “a credible EU enlargement process” that includes all European countries that have submitted an application, “including the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia and granting a candidate status to Ukraine.”

The bishops’ request came on the same day that the European Commission, led by German politician Ursula von der Leyen, issued a recommendation that Ukraine be granted EU candidate status, marking the first step on a lengthy road toward the war-torn country’s full membership.

However, von der Leyen in her statement Friday said the recommendation was made with the understanding that Ukraine carry out several reforms, as admittance is a “merits-based” process.

Ukraine’s admission to the EU was apparently backed by Pope Francis during his meeting with von der Leyen at the Vatican June 10, according to a small group of Ukrainians who met with the pope and asked him to intervene in the matter.

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The European Commission’s recommendation on Ukraine will now be discussed by EU leaders during a June 23-24 summit in Brussels. The launching of accession talks requires approval from each of the 27-member countries.

In its statement, COMECE also urged EU leaders to develop a peace strategy based on “a comprehensive definition” of peace that will aid in strengthening “an integral approach” to the promotion of peace and security and reinforcing civilian peacebuilding policies in a bid to more effectively prevent future violent conflicts from erupting.

EU leaders were also encouraged to strengthen multilateralism by fostering “value-based multilateral and multi-stakeholder partnerships” that adequately address both regional and global challenges such as the current food and energy crises, as well as climate change and the reconstruction of Ukraine.

At the same time, these partnerships must also “reduce dependence on non-democratic regimes by diversifying supply chains and ensuring their sustainability and ethicality,” the bishops said.

They asked EU leaders to engage “responsibly and collaboratively” on security issues through the development of an “adequate means of European defense as part of a comprehensive approach,” while also ensuring “strict public scrutiny of compliance with the principles of proportionality, adequacy, as well as the respect for human rights, the rule of law and ethical standards.”

COMECE also called for the transformation of international relations with the aim of creating “a genuine global community, with a more effective United Nations at its heart and stronger multilateral cooperation on ensuring accountability for international crimes.”

In a background document provided along with their statement, COMECE praised the contribution of the EU in terms of global humanitarian aid and developments in agriculture, trade, and human rights and development policies, but criticized what they said are “inconsistencies” in arms exports by certain EU member states, which they said is a factor preventing the EU “from effectively promoting peace through justice.”

In an increasingly distrustful and divided world, the EU’s role, they said, ought to reflect what Pope Francis called for in his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti, which says that “a real and lasting peace will only be possible on the basis of a global ethic of solidarity and cooperation in the service of a future shaped by interdependence and shared responsibility in the whole human family.”

The EU, the pope said, must “rediscover the path of fraternity” and “work together in bridging divisions and in fostering peace and fellowship between all the peoples of this continent.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen