Can Ukraine become a member of the European Union?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

This week, the European Commission is due to provide its avis, or opinion, on an application that Ukraine recently submitted to Brussels to join the European Union. Next week, EU leaders will hold a summit and decide (or not decide) to do something about Ukraine’s EU aspirations. Will they send a strong signal showing a real consensus to open the EU’s door to Ukraine – and to two other states in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood, Georgia and Moldova, which have also sent in their membership applications?

Just a few years ago, the notion of Ukraine inside the EU would have appeared unrealistic, if not impossible. Ukraine was often both a frustration and a disappointment to EU leaders. Successive democratic and pro-Western leaders emerged from the ballot box in elections that were comparatively free and fair, at least compared to Russia next door. Yet the leaderships of Yushchenko, Timoshenko and Poroshenko failed to deliver on their reform promises. Corruption flourished and Ukraine found itself together with a number of African dictatorships near the bottom of Transparency International’s index of good governance. The Ukrainian oligarchs seemed to have a tighter grip on the political system than even their counterparts in Russia. When the former reality TV star and current Ukrainian president, Zelensky, swept into power on an anti-corruption drive as head of his Servant of the People party, it was largely due to the generous funding of one such Ukrainian oligarch.

Governments constantly interfered in the independence of the judiciary and the IMF held up numerous tranches of its economic support packages to Ukraine, as it saw that Kyiv was not being serious about things like implementing tax reform or removing energy subsidies. The constant rotation of ministers and senior officials in office did not provide the stability and sustained focus needed to carry out real reforms. The Rada, or parliament, seemed more a collection of interest groups than a true legislative body, and to the frustration of EU and NATO member states, Ukraine was regularly lobbying to be granted a special status or new form of association before it had complied with its reform commitments. Those member states certainly admired the crowds on the Maidan square in Kyiv draped in their orange colours and waving blue and gold EU flags; but they despaired that a Ukrainian political class and bureaucracy still wedded to old Soviet habits would ever be able to deliver on popular aspirations for democracy and higher living standards. Over two million Ukrainians decamped to neighbouring Poland in search of a better life. Former German chancellor, Merkel, giving her first interview to the German media last week since leaving office, made it clear that endemic corruption and lack of reform in Ukraine made it unthinkable for her, while German chancellor, to consider Ukraine as a future EU member.

Ukrainians instinctively guessed that going the EU track would give them greater long-term geopolitical stability than the NATO option

Other factors weighed in too. One was that the EU had not given the states belonging to the former Soviet Union – with the exception of the three Baltic countries – the green light to apply for candidate status. This was in contrast to the EU perspective that EU leaders gave in Thessaloniki in 2002, at the conclusion of the conflicts in the Western Balkans, to the newly emerging states of this region. Subsequently, Slovenia and Croatia joined the bloc. Serbia and Montenegro began their negotiations to complete the 35 chapters required for EU membership, and Albania and North Macedonia lobbied Brussels hard to obtain a fixed date when they could begin their accession process. By contrast, the EU offered only various forms of partnership to the countries of the east – such as the European Neighbourhood Policy or the Eastern Partnership – which would bring the countries in the region closer to EU standards and markets but without the carrot of eventual membership. The question here was always whether the eastern states would be ready to carry out painful reforms, ditch their state-run enterprises and unhook themselves from cheap Russian energy without the prize of ultimate EU membership.

Another factor was Russian opposition to a closer association between Ukraine and the EU. Moscow’s hostility towards NATO’s enlargement to the countries of central and eastern Europe was of course long known, but it was widely assumed that Moscow would be less offended by EU-Ukraine cooperation as this would be primarily economic in nature and would not have security and military overtones. Indeed, opinion polls in Ukraine after independence in 1991 consistently showed more support by far for joining the EU than NATO, as if Ukrainians instinctively guessed that going the EU track would give them greater long-term geopolitical stability than the NATO option. Yet, on the eve of signing a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU in March 2014, the Ukrainian president, Yanukovych, came under pressure from Moscow to renounce the deal with Brussels and instead sign up for Putin’s Eurasian Union. This last-minute shift provoked major anti-government demonstrations every day on the Maidan and the fall of the Yanukovych regime.

Moscow played these events into the myth of a fascist coup in Kyiv against a democratically elected government, which it has been using against Ukraine ever since. The illegal Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea followed and then came the Russian backing for the Russian-speaking separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk. Yet, the Russian opposition to Ukraine’s developing relationship with the EU shocked many diplomats in Brussels who had hoped that a future European political system built around the EU and its multiple economic ties with countries across the Western Balkans and the former Soviet Union would provide a more stable and cooperative framework than the enlargement of NATO and its military guarantees. NATO, for its part, had to live with the irony that its sudden need to return to collective defence priorities in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea was provoked by actions of the EU rather than the alliance itself.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed both the benefits and limitations of partnership with NATO

After 2014, Ukraine swung towards the NATO option. In part, this was because military security became much more important for a country with Russian forces sitting on 7% of its territory and always postured to seize even more. Ukraine had to live with large and threatening military exercises by Russia along its borders and the increasing Russian military penetration of its neighbour to the north, Belarus. The NATO option also seemed easier for Kyiv given that the alliance, at its summit in Bucharest in 2008, had stated that Ukraine and Georgia would become NATO members one day even though no timeline had been set for this endeavour and neither Ukraine nor Georgia were invited to start the formal process of preparation for membership by being offered participation in NATO’s Membership Action Plan. Strong opposition from Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands had prevented this, making the eventual promise of membership somewhat vague and open-ended.

Yet, NATO still seemed to offer Kyiv a lot. A NATO-Ukraine Commission had been set up at NATO HQ to enable Ukrainian ministers and diplomats to consult regularly with the allies. NATO concluded an annual Action Plan with Kyiv to assist with the reform and modernisation of Ukraine’s armed forces, defence ministry, defence industries, and planning and procurement cycles. The alliance also established a military liaison mission at the Ukrainian Defence Ministry to provide advice and an Information Centre to turn the hearts and minds of Ukrainians more towards NATO. NATO trainers from the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada were stationed at the Yavoriv military base close to the Polish border to teach the essentials of command leadership, organisation and tactics to the upcoming generation of Ukrainian military officers. Ukraine sent troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan and participated in NATO exercises both on its territory and that of its NATO partners. As Ukraine was hit by successive waves of Russian hybrid attacks, paralysing its electricity grid, election counting system, tax filing software and public administration, NATO stepped up with cyber-security assistance and help in hardening the resilience of Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. None of this was the same as NATO membership, which remained a distant prospect at best. Yet it helped to convince Ukrainians that there were tangible security benefits to be had from drawing closer to NATO, which at least recognised the country’s membership aspirations. Former president Poroshenko changed the constitution to make Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration a duty of all the country’s governments, present and future.

Yet, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed both the benefits and limitations of partnership with NATO. Certainly, allies individually have come to Kyiv’s assistance with weapons, finance and humanitarian supplies; but NATO as an institution has stayed resolutely out of the conflict and made clear that only countries that are alliance members will be defended. As Ukraine needs military help now rather than at some hypothetical date in the future, the value of NATO membership has declined. Moreover, Putin has made clear that Ukraine renouncing its NATO option and returning to neutrality is the condition sine qua non of any Russian agreement to a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement of the conflict. Blocking further rounds of NATO enlargement has been one of the principal justifications for Russia’s resort to arms. So, paradoxically, Ukraine is moving away from NATO towards neutrality at precisely the moment when neutral or non-aligned states like Sweden and Finland are moving in the opposite direction.

What matters for Kyiv is that the EU confirms this European identity and vocation by being ready to open its doors to Ukraine. The hard work of meeting the EU’s demanding entrance criteria can come later. This is a time for political symbols

Russia has been less vociferous about the EU this time around than in 2014. Shortly after the Russian invasion, Zelensky bowed to the inevitable and announced that Ukraine would no longer seek NATO membership. In a way, this was no great sacrifice as NATO would not take in a country with 20% of its territory occupied by Russian troops as Georgia, which has a similar commitment to future NATO membership, realised full well after being invaded by Russia in August 2008. Unsurprisingly, Zelensky and his government have swung back towards the EU option. This is not so much because they believe that the EU would be an easier institution to join – quite the contrary. Rather, at a moment of national crisis and war, being accepted as an EU country is a powerful statement of Ukraine’s attachment to European values. It also offers a chance to build a new Ukrainian national identity around the rejection of Russian autocracy and the espousal of the European social model and market economy. What matters for Kyiv is that the EU confirms this European identity and vocation by being ready to open its doors to Ukraine. The hard work of meeting the EU’s demanding entrance criteria can come later. This is a time for political symbols.

Predictably, the EU has given a mixed response to Kyiv’s application. The EU institutions have on the whole been enthusiastic, particularly the European Parliament, which has been addressed by Zelensky and passed just last week a resolution of support for Ukraine’s EU membership by a large majority. The Ukrainians have developed a narrative that they are fighting a common anti-European adversary on behalf of all Europeans and keeping at bay a Russian threat that might otherwise overwhelm the EU itself. What comes to memory here is a celebrated headline from Le Monde the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the US in 2001. It proclaimed: “We are all Americans now.” Today, as we witness how fragile yet precious the enjoyment of liberal democracy can be in Europe, we might be tempted to proclaim: “We are all Europeans now.” Support for Ukraine as an EU member can be a morale booster for the hard-pressed population by permanently linking the fate of Ukraine to the EU as a whole. This would be the first time that the EU will give candidate status to a neighbour involved in an open conflict and whose very survival is at stake. Ukraine has been a timely reminder that the EU was invented first and foremost as an organisation to preserve the peace in Europe via economic integration. The war has not only reminded Europeans that liberal values have to be actively defended from time to time but also that the EU’s foundational purpose is still valid.

Yet, on the other hand, some EU member states are more reserved at the prospect of EU membership for Ukraine. Naturally, the earlier remarks about corruption and inadequate reforms apply here. The war has united Ukrainians and made their political leaders rise above the day-to-day machinations that bedevilled Ukrainian politics before, particularly when it came to the independence of the judiciary and the electoral commission. There is, however, no guarantee that once the war is over the fault lines in Ukrainian politics and society will not re-emerge and the oligarchs and local party bosses regain their influence. We cannot exclude either greater Russian leverage over Ukrainian politics and domestic affairs. The EU might then experience buyer’s remorse as it has in the case of Turkey.

This said, there is another reason for hesitation as well. The crises and shocks that the EU has had to endure since the turn of the century have underscored the priority of deepening the Union over widening the Union. The financial crisis in 2008 and the possibility that Greece would be forced out of the Euro led to moves towards an EU banking union and mutual debt relief. The COVID-19 pandemic saw the EU take on a role in health through the bulk purchase of vaccines and the ambitious Next Generation EU recovery programme, enabling the EU to borrow on the financial markets and give grants to its member states for the first time. During the Trump years, the EU developed plans for more strategic autonomy and the EU has now supplied weapons to Kyiv using its new Peace Facility to the tune of €1.5bn. Many EU member states, notably France, would like to go further with greater EU integration before the bloc opens its doors again. A widespread sense that many of the EU’s more recent members were admitted prematurely before they met the EU criteria in full and became a major financial burden has also made EU leaders more cautious. During the years of the Juncker Commission in Brussels, France pushed for a minimum five-year moratorium before the EU proceeded with more membership negotiations. Today, as the bloc grapples with the energy crisis, reducing its dependencies on Russia and China, improving its supply chain resilience, greening its economy, making the transition to the digital economy and improving its military capabilities, there is an understandable reluctance to be diverted from this important agenda by having to absorb new members with weak economies and creaking public administrations and judiciaries.

The EU could propose to open three chapters with Ukraine initially to familiarise Kyiv with the accession process and enable it to prepare

How should the EU leaders respond to Ukraine’s application at their summit next week?

The first step is granting Kyiv candidate status. This might be premature, but we are not living in normal times. The EU needs to demonstrate that all Europeans who embrace European values have a place within the Union. Anything short of that would deprive Ukrainians of a reason to resist Russia and further alienate the EU institutions from their own citizens who largely support Ukraine. It would signal a loss of confidence of the EU in its own future. So, there is no choice but to push ahead as the short-term risks of rejecting Ukraine largely outweigh the long-term consequences of embracing it. Fortunately, the leaders of France, Germany and Italy – who were often among the EU enlargement sceptics – have now come around to supporting candidate status for Ukraine as they demonstrated during their joint visit to Kyiv this week. So, the EU should be able to achieve consensus on this quickly.

Next would be to reject ideas from France or other EU member states for a European political community. This is the proposal to create a form of association with the EU as a temporary or transitional arrangement to cover the long period before a country like Ukraine would be ready for EU membership. Similar ideas have been applied to Turkey in the past. At the end of the Cold War, then French president, Mitterrand, advocated a European Confederation to associate the former communist states of central and eastern Europe with the EU, which would remain essentially a club for western Europeans. There is a certain logic behind such ideas as they offer a way to consult frequently with the candidate countries and grant access to certain advantages of EU membership in trade or movement of people, as well as cooperation on foreign policy and defence initiatives, while allowing the candidates to move at their own speed in the accession process. Yet inevitably in the candidate countries, these halfway houses are viewed as an alternative to EU membership and a device to give the EU reasons to delay moving ahead with real and serious membership negotiations. As with purgatory, once a candidate is in a European political community, it would be difficult to get back out. If the EU pretends to open its door to Ukraine and Ukraine pretends to reform, the membership process, which must be rigorous the more the EU enlarges, will quickly run into the sand, with recriminations on both sides. So only the actual accession process with the 35 chapters can truly test the seriousness of both sides.

Therefore, a better approach would be to set a date to open negotiations with Ukraine, say within two years from the end of the conflict with certain conditions. These could be a post-conflict free and fair election and a degree of macro-economic stabilisation. No doubt the durability and robustness of a ceasefire and international monitoring arrangements would need to be tested too. The EU could propose to open three chapters with Ukraine initially to familiarise Kyiv with the accession process and enable it to prepare. The political chapters, such as the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the reform of public administration, and media diversity and protections, might be the best ones to begin with as they will probably be easier to comply with than the more complicated and demanding economic chapters, such as a fully functioning market economy and alignment with the Euro. The EU may well add a suspension clause to halt and freeze the negotiations if Kyiv is unable to engage properly and implement reforms agreed with Brussels. A timeline could be established for the negotiation and completion of individual chapters to encourage Ukraine to stay on course, or EU pre-accession funds linked to certain reforms or chapter conclusions could be introduced.

[Ukraine’s candidate status] is also the best guarantee of Europe’s future security […] and the best way for the EU to remain true to its original purpose of giving the European continent a lasting peace

At the same time, the EU could strike a number of conditional sub-agreements with Ukraine that would progressively offer some of the benefits of EU membership to Ukrainians as they demonstrate an ability and willingness to meet EU obligations. These could include the benefits that are already granted to the candidate countries in the Western Balkans, such as visa-free travel to the EU or participation in Erasmus education and student exchange programmes. The EU could progressively open its markets to Ukrainian goods, particularly in the agricultural sector, and further integrate energy markets, particularly now that the Ukrainian electricity grid has been connected to the EU grid. Ukrainian scientists, entrepreneurs and start-ups could participate in the EU’s Horizon research programme and the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), and European Defence Fund military capabilities development programmes could be opened up to participation by the Ukrainian defence industry as they have been to the US and Norway. In a post-conflict scenario, it might also be possible for Ukraine to contribute forces to Common Security and Defence Policy operations outside Europe.

There are clearly multiple possibilities here to be explored for the adoption of a multiple speed and sector approach that integrates Ukraine into EU structures flexibly and without certain areas being held hostage to others. There is all the more reason for the EU to adopt this approach as in granting Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia candidate status, it will have eight candidate countries to contend with. Given that none today, with the possible exception of Montenegro, are close to joining, a flexible and progressive approach to bridge the gap and avoid ultimate disappointment and demotivation at accession processes that drag on for years seems better than an all-or-nothing approach.

Finally, as there are a large number of EU candidates knocking on the EU door at the same time, the EU has an interest in putting them together as a group and inducing them to work together. They can share experiences of implementing EU reforms with each other and be encouraged to work together to negotiate packages of EU benefits as a group rather than individually. A group application will certainly increase their visibility and influence in Brussels and keep EU officials and institutions focused on moving the enlargement agenda forward. A candidates group could also lead the way by increasing trade and practical cooperation among themselves, for instance in protecting borders, fighting crime and dealing with illegal migration. It could also link better economically and socially the Western Balkans to the eastern neighbourhood.

Paul McCartney once sang of “the long and winding road”. This is no doubt the fate that awaits Ukraine once the euphoria of being granted candidate status wears off and the hard reality of meeting the EU’s rightly exacting standards begins. Candidate status is an opportunity rather than a promise. Along the way, the periods when the pessimists will have the upper hand over the optimists will probably be long indeed. Yet, if there is one positive thing for Europe that might yet emerge from the catastrophe of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it is that country’s ultimate inclusion in the EU. It is also the best guarantee of Europe’s future security along with the continuing US presence through NATO and the best way for the EU to remain true to its original purpose of giving the European continent a lasting peace.

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