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The EU Can Walk a Tightrope on Admitting Ukraine

Brussels should learn from its experience in the Western Balkans.

By , a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.
A protester holds a placard reading “Ukraine in EU” during a rally to support Ukraine in Strasbourg, France, on March 12.
A protester holds a placard reading “Ukraine in EU” during a rally to support Ukraine in Strasbourg, France, on March 12.
A protester holds a placard reading “Ukraine in EU” during a rally to support Ukraine in Strasbourg, France, on March 12. SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

The European Union has reacted largely positively to the EU membership application Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky submitted on Feb. 28, just four days after Russia began its invasion of his country. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission—the European Union executive body now responsible for assessing Ukraine’s application—did not hide her desire to see Ukraine in the EU while EU heads of state and government expressed preliminary support for Ukraine’s pursuit of membership at a recent meeting, agreeing that “Ukraine belongs to our European family.”

Ukraine has longed for what Zelensky calls a “European perspective”—a door to the possibility of eventual EU membership—since the 2013-2014 Euromaidan revolution, sparked by then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an Association Agreement with the EU. The popular unrest that followed eventually prompted him to flee the country.

Considering Ukraine for EU membership would be a strong way for the West to show symbolic support of the country in its existential struggle against an unprovoked aggressor. Brussels now considers it a moral imperative to grant Ukraine the status of an official “candidate for membership,” the first step in the EU accession process before formal membership negotiations begin.

The European Union has reacted largely positively to the EU membership application Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky submitted on Feb. 28, just four days after Russia began its invasion of his country. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission—the European Union executive body now responsible for assessing Ukraine’s application—did not hide her desire to see Ukraine in the EU while EU heads of state and government expressed preliminary support for Ukraine’s pursuit of membership at a recent meeting, agreeing that “Ukraine belongs to our European family.”

Ukraine has longed for what Zelensky calls a “European perspective”—a door to the possibility of eventual EU membership—since the 2013-2014 Euromaidan revolution, sparked by then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an Association Agreement with the EU. The popular unrest that followed eventually prompted him to flee the country.

Considering Ukraine for EU membership would be a strong way for the West to show symbolic support of the country in its existential struggle against an unprovoked aggressor. Brussels now considers it a moral imperative to grant Ukraine the status of an official “candidate for membership,” the first step in the EU accession process before formal membership negotiations begin.

But letting Ukraine directly into this waiting room of sorts would be risky and premature given that the country is currently at war and does not have the capacity to fulfill the bloc’s membership criteria.

Fortunately, there is another way. The EU should consider opening its door to Ukraine through a mechanism devised for negotiations with countries in the Western Balkans, which created the status of “potential candidate” as an intermediary stage between a country’s application and official candidacy. This classification avoids raising unrealistic expectations about a pending Ukrainian EU membership while also averting outright rejection.

The reasons why Ukraine is unfit to become an EU candidate country are twofold. Most immediate and obvious is the ongoing war—and the geopolitical unpredictability that comes with it. It is too early to know what form the Ukrainian state will take after the cessation of armed hostilities—or whether it will exist at all. Russia may keep occupied territories under its control, where EU law—the adoption of which is required as part of the accession process—would be unenforceable. A Russian occupation would also raise questions about how the EU would live up to its defense pact, which obliges members to assist one another against external aggression, if it were to admit Ukraine. The EU cannot seriously grant Ukraine candidate status without deciding how it would react to a continued Russian occupation or renewed aggression.

The EU should consider the “potential candidate” status as a model for Ukraine.

Moreover, it is possible that granting Ukraine the status of a candidate country may cause Russia to escalate the war under the pretext of preventing Western expansionism. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 in response to the Euromaidan revolution and may again not see the difference between EU and NATO enlargement. Russia has consistently opposed Ukrainian (and Georgian) NATO membership, and closing this possibility was a core demand in its futile negotiations with the West before the invasion.

Beyond the present impasse, Ukraine since the Euromaidan revolution has not demonstrated a reform record suggesting it can meet the EU’s membership criteria in the foreseeable future. Under Yanukovych’s successor, Ukraine adopted the Association Agreement with the EU in 2014, by which it formally committed to implementing the EU’s vast body of laws and court rulings—which is binding for all EU member states. Although membership was not explicitly mentioned as a long-term prospect under the Association Agreement, most Ukrainian citizens welcomed the economic and rule-of-law reforms as well as the free-trade benefits that came with it, which they believed would help them to achieve higher living standards and a more accountable state.

Ukraine made some progress in the technical aspects of reform, such as food safety and improving the transparency of public procurement, but proved chronically unable to fight corruption at the highest level of state power. Ukraine put in place new anti-corruption institutions and reformed its courts, but systematic interference from lawmakers and existing security agencies undermined the state’s ability to detect and punish perpetrators. Despite some success in banking and gas sector reform, Ukraine ultimately failed to erode market monopolization by oligarchs, according to EU auditors.

The EU’s mostly disappointing experience promoting reform in Ukraine over the past eight years warrants a balanced approach to the country’s membership application today. The EU and its member states are unequivocally committed to supporting Ukraine during its war through arms deliveries, macro-financial support, and closer economic integration. Outright rebuffing its application and merely boosting certain aspects of the Association Agreement, such as Ukraine’s links to the EU single market and energy grid, will not give Ukraine material or moral encouragement in its existential struggle.

On the other hand, it is unlikely, if not impossible, that Ukraine would be able to start accession negotiations with the EU in the foreseeable future—which could only begin after it meets opening benchmarks for talks. Ukraine’s current state makes this a distant prospect. In dealing with this dilemma, the EU can learn from its experience with a group of other candidate countries stuck in transition: the Western Balkans.

The EU granted Montenegro and Serbia candidate country status in 2010 and in 2012, respectively, after the countries submitted membership applications to the bloc. But more than a decade later, they have failed to adopt and implement significant parts of EU law that would bring them closer to membership; in fact, their decline in civil liberties and slow pace of broader economic reform proved previous assessments of membership by 2030 far too optimistic. The EU granted North Macedonia and Albania candidate status in 2005 and in 2014, respectively, but foot-dragging on reforms is the main reason they so far have been unable to open accession negotiations. Worse still is the case of Turkey, which became a candidate country in 1999 but has since declined democratically to an extent that future accession is unlikely.

In hindsight, granting these countries full candidate status was premature. Besides the disappointment candidate countries face when they are put in limbo for decades, overextension weakens the credibility of the EU enlargement regime. Within the EU, it reinforces public skepticism about the competency of EU elites to anticipate the geopolitical implications of their bureaucratic procedures as well as fatigue with candidate countries that make no or little reform progress. Within the candidate countries, protracted or unattainable accession processes nourish public disillusion that undermines the EU’s intention to give local political elites a sustained incentive to undertake reform.

Brussels deals with particularly problematic EU aspirants from the Western Balkans as “potential candidates.” This category was conceived in 2003, when the EU decided to give all countries in the region an explicit membership perspective. The category of “potential candidates” in practice functions as a pre-waiting room for membership and includes Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is undercut by nationalist separatism and state dysfunctionality, as well as Kosovo, which is not recognized by five EU member states and struggles with political instability intermingled with organized crime. These countries can apply to become “candidates for membership,” but there is no automatic or guaranteed transition. Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for official candidate status in 2016 but was unsuccessful.

The advantage of defining an applicant as a “potential candidate” rather than a “candidate for membership” is that it affirms EU membership could be in the applicant’s future without creating the impression that the applicant has yet demonstrated the capacity for significant progress toward accession. It also helps to keep the EU’s and aspirant country’s expectations realistic, thereby maintaining the credibility of the enlargement process.

The EU should consider the “potential candidate” status as a model for Ukraine: providing Zelensky with the “European perspective” he desires for his country while being realistic about Ukraine’s unclarified—and everchanging—territorial status as well as making it clear that the country, whenever and however it emerges from this war, must undertake fundamental reforms before it can become a full candidate country for EU membership.

The EU cannot simply ignore Ukraine’s deficits in implementing EU law to fast-track the country’s membership application, as Zelensky has requested. Core members like France, Germany, and especially the Netherlands have already come out flatly against a fast-tracked mechanism, correctly pointing out that a new special procedure would require the EU to amend its treaties. Moreover, fast-tracking membership would undermine the EU’s cohesion: Enduring problems with corruption in Romania and Bulgaria as well as rule-of-law backlashes in Poland and Hungary show that the EU loses its main leverage over a member’s democratic institutions once it has acceded to the bloc.

Outside of the fast-tracked process, accepting Ukraine as a candidate for EU membership on a normal timeline—which requires the unanimous consent of all member states and around which a consensus is taking shape—is understandable from an emotional perspective while the country is at war. But it makes less sense if one fully appreciates the practical obstacles Ukraine faces in ultimately joining the EU as a member. The same goes for Georgia and Moldova, which seized Russia’s invasion as an opportunity for themselves to also apply for membership and whose territorial and governance problems are similar to those of Ukraine. The EU will need to consider these two applicants next, and it will be hard to diverge from whatever precedent it sets for Ukraine.

Under these circumstances, the EU’s best middle path is to consider Ukraine as a potential candidate. Having fallen victim to the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II, Ukraine deserves a new chance and an unprecedented incentive for a fundamental break with the past—but not one laden with unrealistic expectations. To give Ukrainians hope of emerging stronger, the EU can offer nothing short of an open door—letting Ukraine into the pre-waiting room, from which it hopefully will be able to jump-start further progress.

Henrik Larsen is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. He served as a political advisor for the European Union in Ukraine from 2014 to 2019. Twitter: @larsenification

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