Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Ukraine Doesn’t Need Half-Measures From the EU

Europeans should learn from the success of enlarging the bloc.

By , a fellow at the Hertie School’s Centre for International Security.
European Parliament gives Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a standing ovation
European Parliament gives Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a standing ovation
European Parliament members give a standing ovation after a live video address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Brussels, on March 1. Jonas Roosens/Belga/AFP via Getty Images

 The issue of Ukraine’s European Union membership will play a major role in any peace settlement with Russia. Moscow has been surprisingly clear that that it would not object to Kyiv joining the bloc. EU member states, on the other hand, have been less unequivocally positive—and their attitude may ultimately prove to be a greater obstacle to Ukraine’s EU ambitions.

When European leaders declined to endorse Ukraine’s candidacy, they were careful to avoid completely ruling out eventual membership of the club, well aware that European public opinion is firmly with Ukraine. EU officials note, fairly, that full membership requires multiple standards to be met. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte emphasized that this means that Ukraine cannot be given an immediate way in or even a “fast track.” In trying to give credence to their claims that Ukraine’s “European path” was still open, EU leaders kicked the can down the road by asking the European Commission to provide a technical “opinion” on what is ultimately a political matter.

While Ukrainians wait and die as Russia’s invasion continues, some politicians and experts have offered reasons (mainly excuses) to rebuff Ukraine’s request for candidacy. Others, including Henrik Larsen writing here in Foreign Policy, have proposed alternatives. Larsen’s suggestion of “potential candidate” status purports to offer the EU a middle way between genuinely committing itself and further betraying Ukraine.

 The issue of Ukraine’s European Union membership will play a major role in any peace settlement with Russia. Moscow has been surprisingly clear that that it would not object to Kyiv joining the bloc. EU member states, on the other hand, have been less unequivocally positive—and their attitude may ultimately prove to be a greater obstacle to Ukraine’s EU ambitions.

When European leaders declined to endorse Ukraine’s candidacy, they were careful to avoid completely ruling out eventual membership of the club, well aware that European public opinion is firmly with Ukraine. EU officials note, fairly, that full membership requires multiple standards to be met. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte emphasized that this means that Ukraine cannot be given an immediate way in or even a “fast track.” In trying to give credence to their claims that Ukraine’s “European path” was still open, EU leaders kicked the can down the road by asking the European Commission to provide a technical “opinion” on what is ultimately a political matter.

While Ukrainians wait and die as Russia’s invasion continues, some politicians and experts have offered reasons (mainly excuses) to rebuff Ukraine’s request for candidacy. Others, including Henrik Larsen writing here in Foreign Policy, have proposed alternatives. Larsen’s suggestion of “potential candidate” status purports to offer the EU a middle way between genuinely committing itself and further betraying Ukraine.

This will not satisfy Ukrainians, although it might appeal to some EU leaders. But they would be wrong to adopt a halfway house approach. It draws the wrong lessons from the EU’s history and would reinforce tendencies that could foreclose the bloc’s future influence. Instead of following this counsel, the EU should seek different inspiration from its past, immediately grant Ukraine’s candidacy, and use that as a springboard to play a stronger role in ordering the emerging world.

Larsen’s argument echoes common Western European discourse in justifying hesitancy by leaning on a litany of failures in Ukraine, in the Western Balkans, and in Central and Eastern European EU states.

Taking Ukraine first, the country’s record of reforms since 2014 is not seen as sufficient to warrant candidacy status. Taken at face value and without further context, this is right. Based on my own experience of working for the EU in Ukraine and my subsequent academic research there, we could actually extend Larsen’s analysis of stuttering, inadequate reform further back to 2004, the beginning of the European Neighbourhood Policy, and get the same result: Despite significant steps forward in some areas, serious shortcomings remain, and corruption is a major overall problem.

Yet this would still miss the real point. From the outset, EU support to Ukraine has been half-hearted, a hesitant embrace designed not so much to bring the country closer as to keep it at arm’s length. Ukrainians clearly saw that much of the bloc’s engagement was primarily for its own benefit. The union sought to maximixe its economic gains from its neighbor, prevent spillovers from what it described as “troubled areas,” and use it as a testing ground for the bloc’s ambitions as a security actor. Technical assessments of progress, with shifting goalposts, were too often used to disguise political impulses to keep Ukraine and Ukrainians at a safe distance.

Visa-free travel, an important psychological indicator of belonging, is a case in point. Little changed technically in border management standards between 2012 and visa liberalization in 2017. What changed was the politics. The Slovak government, criticized for its role in the 2015 migration crisis, needed a positive initiative on mobility for its 2016 EU presidency. Rallying a coalition of like-minded states, it pushed for liberalization and got it, even though the European Commission had been going slow on this process for years. Ukrainians justifiably wondered why this couldn’t have happened earlier—and why, despite their sacrifices during the Euromaidan protests in support closer ties with the EU, they still needed additional permissions for work and for longer stays in the union.

The wider issue is that, as in the Western Balkans, the story of the EU’s engagement with Ukraine is not simply one of failed reform on the part of the neighbors, partners, and candidates. It is also a tale of the EU’s failure to adequately incentivize, support, and reward that reform—and one littered with inequities, sharp practices, and broken promises. Ukrainians, like many in the Balkans, were left feeling shunned by the EU, which the Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan has pointedly called “real Europe.” From Ukraine to North Macedonia, people felt condemned to a second-class status or, worse, felt seen as “barbarians” at the gates of Europe, and they became understandably unwilling to jump through endless hoops without good reason.

The EU’s neighborhood and Balkans policies failed to replicate the virtuous cycles of clear incentive, support, and progress that characterized the processes leading up to the 2004 accession of eight Central and Eastern European states—which have been at the forefront of support for Ukraine. Yet even this successful enlargement seems to be viewed with regret. Larsen’s charges of “rule-of-law backlashes in Poland and Hungary,” as well as corruption in 2007 entrants Romania and Bulgaria, are correct and may be irredeemable in Hungary. But, again, they don’t tell the full story.

There has also been genuine progress and real reform, as well as economic and societal development, in the Central and Eastern European member states. In the meantime, Western Europe has had plenty of problems of its own, including severe governance issues and fraud in the Netherlands and Austria, Luxembourg’s tax haven economy, Denmark’s hostile approach to migrants, Germany’s challenge to the supremacy of the European courts, and the enduring support for the French far right, which remains the country’s main opposition. Western European states are not paragons of virtue that need to be protected from the malign influence of Central and Eastern Europe.

By sticking to this unsustainable, holier-than-thou position and hiding chauvinistic politics behind technical process, the EU would not only deal a hammer blow to Ukrainians, but it would also harm its own future prospects. Former European Commission President Romano Prodi was right when he called the 2004 enlargement the EU’s “greatest contribution to sustainable stability and security on the European continent.” With the bloc’s current approach—and that advocated by Larsen—it never would have happened.

Rather than condemning aspirant members like Ukraine to the permanent half-light of pre-waiting room waiting rooms, the EU should embrace them whole-heartedly. Giving candidacy with a genuine view to membership (which was seemingly not the case in the Western Balkans) would incentivize both parties to ensure the necessary reforms are really made. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government has accumulated the political capital to face down vested interests and tackle corruption. Doing so would deliver the changes that Ukrainians need to improve their lives. Supporting this process to the hilt and rewarding progress would prevent the EU from taking in a state that wouldn’t uphold its standards. Kick-starting enlargement would also create an incentive to develop meaningful enforcement mechanisms for member states within the EU, which should then be applied evenhandedly from west to east.

Larsen argues that the uncertainty created by the war means that the EU should be wary of committing to Ukraine, as it may not even survive the conflict as a state. To the contrary, the attack on Ukraine should prompt the EU to think bigger and do all it can to ensure that it not only has a future but a more hopeful one at that. In the words of former European Commission President Jacques Delors, taking Europe forward requires “three qualities: vision, heart, and a strategic realism.”

Instead of chasing delusions of hard power adequacy and trying in vain to protect itself from an outside world it sees as different and dangerous by insulating itself, the EU should take a strategic and realistic view of what its true geopolitical contribution has been—and can be again. This contribution came from the transformative power of the union’s previously bold and creative approach to geopolitics and its mutually beneficial mode of hopeful and progressive security through integration of states and interconnection of peoples. Instead of being timid, Europeans should conquer their fears and revive this approach by having the vision to look beyond the war and the heart to welcome Ukraine into the EU.

 

Benjamin Tallis is a fellow at the Hertie School’s Centre for International Security. He worked for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the European Union in the Balkans and Ukraine from 2003 to 2007, advised on the 2017 visa liberalization for Ukraine, and is the author of a forthcoming book on EU enlargement and neighborhood policy.

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