Nick Lokker / Jun 2022
Photo: European Union 2022
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has thrust EU enlargement back into the European debate. While Ukraine’s defense of its longstanding aspirations to join the Euro-Atlantic community has led to calls from many EU leaders to integrate Ukraine, both political and logistical barriers make full membership unworkable in the short term. To reconcile the need to quickly anchor Ukraine in the West with the realities of the Union’s intensive enlargement process, EU leaders should think outside the box and consider a new “preparatory membership” scheme that promises staged progress toward full integration with the bloc.
Ukraine has proven its Western vocation in recent months, fighting a war that Russian political scientist Andrey Kortunov has described as “a clash between very different ways of organizing social and political life.” The best form of support for Ukraine’s fragile but persistent movement toward liberal democracy would be a resolute commitment to bring it into the Euro-Atlantic community, embodied in the European Union and NATO. While this would ideally entail membership in both institutions, welcoming Ukraine could increase NATO’s likelihood of coming into direct military conflict with Russia and is therefore unwise in the current political context.
Integration with the European Union, by contrast, is unlikely to carry the same risks. Indeed, Russia has previously expressed its openness to potential EU membership for Ukraine, provided that it does not join NATO. Recognizing this dynamic, Kyiv has formally applied to join the European Union while easing its demands for NATO membership. It is worth noting, moreover, that Ukraine has viewed EU accession as its primary objective for many years—after all, the war with Russia in 2014 was sparked by Kyiv’s decision to pursue an Association Agreement with Brussels.
The desire for a closer embrace is far from one-sided. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised in April to accelerate Ukraine’s accession to the Union, and in March the leaders of eight EU member states published an open letter backing Ukraine’s bid, asserting that the country “deserves receiving an immediate EU accession perspective.” Moreover, this support, while largely motivated by compassion for Ukrainians, is also underpinned by a more self-interested rationale, with the integration of Ukraine increasingly viewed as a key geostrategic objective for the European Union.
Nonetheless, numerous imposing obstacles make full membership for Ukraine unrealistic in the short term. First, many national governments remain cautious of further enlargement, wishing to avoid a repeat of the democratic backsliding that has occurred among newer—and perhaps prematurely admitted—EU members such as Hungary and Poland. These doubts are likely to preclude consensus in the European Council on a fast-tracked accession process for Ukraine. Furthermore, while Ukraine has made real progress on political and economic reforms in recent years, it still falls short of fully satisfying the Copenhagen criteria for EU accession.
It would seem, then, that the European Union is caught in a dilemma. Even if the bloc does decide to grant Ukraine candidate status at the critical upcoming European Council summit on June 23-24, Kiev’s path to integration in a meaningful timeframe would be far from assured—as the experience of longstanding candidates such as Turkey demonstrates, this designation does not offer a guaranteed timeline for membership. Moreover, candidate countries currently enjoy very few of the political, economic, or security benefits enjoyed by EU member states, contributing to a sense of disillusionment among those for whom accession takes a long time.
Yet with some creative thinking, Brussels can thread the needle and quickly bring Ukraine into the fold while preserving the integrity of its enlargement process. This requires a fundamental reconsideration of the existing “all-or-nothing” nature of EU membership. Reforming this process into one that gradually offers additional advantages of integration as progress is made toward fulfilling the Union’s acquis communautaire would revitalize EU enlargement policy, providing consistent encouragement along the road to membership.
To accomplish this, Brussels should create a new preparatory membership status for countries aspiring to join the Union. While this would bear some resemblance to Emmanuel Macron’s call for a European Political Community, offering advantages of closer integration in the short term without compromising the Copenhagen criteria, it would differ in being reserved exclusively for those countries committed to attaining full membership—the United Kingdom, for instance, could not become an associate member under the current pro-Brexit government, while Georgia, Moldova, and the Western Balkan countries would qualify. This would ensure that preparatory membership is viewed as a credible on-ramp rather than an alternative to full integration, as Ukraine fears is the intention behind Macron’s proposal.
It would also differ in this respect from Andrew Duff’s idea for “affiliate membership,” which he notes “could potentially be a convenient and permanent parking place”, as well as the “associate membership” scheme recommended by Susi Dennison and José Ignacio Torreblanca, which would not offer an explicit guarantee of eventual full membership. Though other elements of these proposals are sound, such as their suggestions to provide immediate benefits including closer economic linkages and security cooperation with Brussels, any truly satisfactory compromise must contain an ironclad pledge to admit Ukraine in due time. To that end, preparatory membership status should include clear stipulations of the timeline for full membership and the sequencing of iterative steps toward greater integration. This mutual commitment to strive toward full union could allow for additional symbolic and political benefits such as official government usage of the EU flag or permanent observer status in the European Council.
Ultimately, any credible plan will need the full backing of existing EU member states. As heads of state and government gear up for the upcoming European Council summit—a meeting at which Ukraine’s EU prospects are sure to feature prominently on the agenda—they should consider a compromise solution that serves both their own interests and those of Ukraine. Upending the failed status quo of enlargement policy by creating a new category of preparatory membership would be a good place to start.