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EU Mulls Putting Ukraine on Track for Membership

Official candidacy for the bloc is unlikely, but even a lesser accession status would send a powerful signal.

By , an analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
Von der Leyen and Zelensky in Kyiv
Von der Leyen and Zelensky in Kyiv
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks at a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on April 8. Michael Fischer/picture alliance via Getty Images

This summer, the 27 member states of the European Union will have to make a historic decision: how to formulate their answer to Ukraine’s application in February to become a member of the bloc. Although they’ve been less in the spotlight, Moldova and Georgia are also knocking on the EU’s door. Like Kyiv, Chisinau and Tbilisi also hope to finally get an unequivocal statement from Brussels about their path to EU membership.

The European Commission is on the applicants’ side—especially Ukraine’s. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen famously pronounced in February that Ukraine is “one of us and we want them in the European Union.” While most power in the EU isn’t located in Brussels—it’s the national capitals and their representatives in the European Council that make the important decisions—the commission is expected to recommend an official membership perspective for the three applicants. What sounds like a bureaucratic formality with an uncertain outcome is highly consequential. In Ukraine’s case, an official designation as an EU candidate—or even the second-class status of potential candidate—would send a strong message of support; open a path to eventual membership in the bloc, however distant; and make abundantly clear to Moscow that the EU has no intention of giving in to the Kremlin’s claims to control Ukraine.

That said, there is no realistic path for the trio to quickly become members, no matter what the commission decides. Even an actual candidacy for membership with its clearly formulated path for accession—in essence, a long to-do list for various reforms that align a candidate’s laws, economy, and governance with EU norms—would not guarantee anything except a long transition period, as Turkey’s candidate status since 1999 can attest. What currently seems most realistic for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia is their upgrade to so-called potential candidate status.

This summer, the 27 member states of the European Union will have to make a historic decision: how to formulate their answer to Ukraine’s application in February to become a member of the bloc. Although they’ve been less in the spotlight, Moldova and Georgia are also knocking on the EU’s door. Like Kyiv, Chisinau and Tbilisi also hope to finally get an unequivocal statement from Brussels about their path to EU membership.

The European Commission is on the applicants’ side—especially Ukraine’s. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen famously pronounced in February that Ukraine is “one of us and we want them in the European Union.” While most power in the EU isn’t located in Brussels—it’s the national capitals and their representatives in the European Council that make the important decisions—the commission is expected to recommend an official membership perspective for the three applicants. What sounds like a bureaucratic formality with an uncertain outcome is highly consequential. In Ukraine’s case, an official designation as an EU candidate—or even the second-class status of potential candidate—would send a strong message of support; open a path to eventual membership in the bloc, however distant; and make abundantly clear to Moscow that the EU has no intention of giving in to the Kremlin’s claims to control Ukraine.

That said, there is no realistic path for the trio to quickly become members, no matter what the commission decides. Even an actual candidacy for membership with its clearly formulated path for accession—in essence, a long to-do list for various reforms that align a candidate’s laws, economy, and governance with EU norms—would not guarantee anything except a long transition period, as Turkey’s candidate status since 1999 can attest. What currently seems most realistic for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia is their upgrade to so-called potential candidate status.

That full-fledged candidate status isn’t in the cards was first disclosed by Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who said in late May that most of the larger European Union members are against such a fast track to membership negotiations. “The status of EU candidate for Ukraine is objected to by almost all the major states of the union,” Draghi said. “I would say all of them, excluding Italy.” But while the category of only a potential candidate falls short of formal candidacy, even having lesser status would open the door to negotiations in the not-too-distant future. It is also a step up from their current designation as associated partners—in essence, friendly neighbors that enjoy special relations with the EU.

Making Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia potential or even proper EU candidates would shift the geopolitics of Eastern Europe.

At first glance, the status of potential EU candidacy may not sound like much. It would put the three countries on par with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, which are not exactly on a fast track to membership. It would clearly be less than Ukraine and its supporters in the commission want, placing it behind current membership candidates Turkey and Serbia, which has been an EU candidate since 2012. The latter two countries’ paths away from the EU’s democratic norms over the last 20 years mean that their membership aspirations may never materialize.

Notwithstanding these uncertainties, even potential candidate status would mean much for Ukraine and the other two aspirants. It would formally ratify their European aspirations, which have already been publicly and repeatedly acknowledged by the European Commission and European Parliament. In March, the European Council, where member states make their decisions, released a statement that Ukraine belonged to “our European family,” though it failed to say whether that implies future membership. The shift of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova from mere “associated” countries—a status reserved for the EU’s partners around the world—to potential accession states and its various formal mechanisms of alignment with the bloc has not only symbolic significance but also geopolitical, legal, economic, and psychological significance. It would give the three aspirants a direction for domestic reforms and geopolitical alignment.

The three countries’ status as potential or even proper EU candidates would shift the geopolitics of Eastern Europe. The current gray zone between the West and Russia (with its satellites, Belarus and Armenia) would become a little less gray. To be sure, only full EU and NATO membership would secure the Eastern European geopolitical space. But by giving the three aspirants an official membership perspective, the EU would send a strong signal of where the train is headed.

A membership path would also provide important carrots and sticks with which the West can speed up Eastern Europe’s transition and ensure the region’s future stability. That’s because membership is conditioned on full compliance with EU standards, including regulations, legal rights, trade in goods and services, transparency, and democratic governance. Future accession is thus an effective instrument for Brussels—and for reform-minded leaders in the three countries—to overcome local resistance by vested interests, immobile bureaucrats, and other opponents of reform.

The recent experience of integrating other Eastern European countries—the bulk of which only joined the EU in 2004—would set the agenda for the coming years, including knowledge transfers, institutional support, and financial assistance. A number of institutions and mechanisms created by Brussels to prepare the Western Balkan countries for accession, such as the Center for Security Cooperation and the Center of Excellence in Finance, could easily be expanded to include Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.

Opponents of a formal accession path argue that all three countries are partially occupied by Russia: an ongoing war in Ukraine and frozen conflicts with unrecognized Russian puppet states in the case of Moldova and Georgia. Were these three to become members, the EU would essentially be importing unresolved military conflicts with Russia. Indeed, the EU’s de facto constitution, the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon, includes a mutual defense clause obliging other members to “aid and assistance by all the means in their power.” However, these concerns were ignored when Cyprus, whose northern half is occupied by Turkey, became a member in 2004, and the Treaty of Lisbon’s defense clause has never been invoked. What worked for Cyprus should work for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia too.

A collective European statement giving the three countries an accession path would also send an important signal to Moscow, not least by confirming the strategic relevance of these countries for the EU. A path to accession would also be in glaring contradiction to the Kremlin’s portrayal of the three nations as failed, waiting to be gathered back into the Russian world, or even nonexistent. It would, in particular, challenge Russian President Vladimir Putin’s massive attack on the lives, homeland, and identity of Ukrainians.

Above all, the three states’ designation as potential or even proper EU candidates would be an important morale boost to their citizens. They would finally understand that a European future—not a Russian one—awaits them, their children, and their grandchildren. For no one would that be more uplifting than for the Ukrainians now fighting for their nation’s very existence.

Andreas Umland is an analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs’ Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies. Twitter: @UmlandAndreas

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