Jean-Claude Juncker.jpg
Photograph: EPA/LAURENT DUBRULE

It will take Ukraine at least another 20 years to join the European Union or NATO, a top EU official predicted Thursday, dashing hopes in the country for quick accessions to the bloc and the military alliance.

The push for closer ties between Ukraine and the EU lies at the heart of the current crisis in the former Soviet country, which was triggered by protests in 2013 over a failed attempt to finalize an EU-Ukraine free trade deal.

The agreement has since been signed and implemented, while the EU is paving the way for Ukrainian citizens to be able to visit the bloc without visas. Top officials in Ukraine have also repeatedly expressed the wish to join the EU.

But European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said during a speech in The Hague on Thursday that "Ukraine will definitely not be able to become a member of the EU in the next 20-25 years, and not of NATO either."

Ukraine has shown increasing support for the Western military alliance in recent years, after Russia annexed its southern Crimea peninsula in 2014 and then supported a pro-Russian separatist rebellion in Ukraine's east.

Ukraine hosted NATO military exercises last year in an apparent show of force against its formidable eastern neighbour.

Russia has repeatedly denounced NATO's eastern expansion as a threat to its national security. Russia occupied Crimea, the site of a major Russian naval base, in response to Ukraine ousting its pro-Russian president.

Juncker made his comments in the context of a referendum that the Netherlands will hold in April on the EU-Ukraine free trade deal. The commission president said that some Dutch voters have misunderstood that agreement as the first step towards membership.

The commission, the EU's executive, plays a leading role in accession negotiations between the bloc and aspiring members.

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