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Wanted: A reality check on Ukraine’s EU accession

Nick Lokker / Dec 2023

Photo: European Union, 2023

 

When the European Union’s heads of state and government convene in Brussels on December 14-15, they will debate opening accession negotiations with Ukraine. Despite last-minute objections by Hungary, the European Council appears likely to give Kyiv the green light—if not now, then in the months to come. Such a decision, following the European Commission’s recent recommendation based on Ukraine’s progress toward reforms, would be a welcome signal of the bloc’s willingness to decisively respond to the geopolitical imperative of anchoring Ukraine in the West following Russia’s full-scale invasion. Yet it will nonetheless paper over the monumental elephant in the room: the reality of ongoing brutal fighting in Ukraine with no end in sight.

As long as Ukraine remains actively engaged in hostilities with Russia, it will be unable to become a full member of the European Union. The biggest reason for this is the existence of the European Union’s mutual defense clause, which “provides that if a member state is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other member states have an obligation to aid and assist it by all the means in their power.” If fighting continues, therefore, full Ukrainian EU membership would likely require direct intervention by other member states—a nonstarter in virtually every case.

Nonetheless, serious consideration about how to address this conundrum has been sorely missing from the EU debate. Instead, discussions have focused heavily on the need to implement reforms—both for Ukraine and for the European Union itself. Such reforms are undoubtedly crucial for Ukraine’s successful integration into the bloc, but even their perfect implementation would not allow for Kyiv’s full accession under current conditions. It is difficult to avoid the impression that EU leaders are assuming the existence of a future Ukrainian peace in their planning for enlargement, with European Council President Charles Michel even going so far as to promise membership by 2030.

Yet peace by 2030 is by no means assured. The Russo-Ukrainian war has already lasted nearly a decade, and the current military situation characterized by stalemate offers little reason to assume the imminent removal of Russian forces from southern and eastern Ukraine. A ceasefire, meanwhile, remains unlikely as long as Kyiv retains its will to fight—as is its right, despite calls from certain Western analysts to press it to negotiate with the Kremlin. Consequently, the European Union must prepare for the conflict to persist for years to come, including by adapting its enlargement process to fit that reality.

Instead of offering dubious timelines for full membership based on wishful thinking, Brussels should work to integrate Ukraine as far as is possible under the conditions of conflict. This will require shifting to a staged accession model, whereby the benefits of EU accession would come gradually along the road to full membership, rather than all at once after crossing the finish line. Many proposals for phased integration exist, but frequently suggested ideas include granting single market access, structural funding, and partial participation in EU institutions to candidates prior to formal accession.

Crucially, implementing staged accession must not mean the permanent relegation of Ukraine to second-tier EU membership. Sensitivity to the concerns of candidate countries about such a scenario explains in large part why the concept has so far failed to gain sufficient traction among EU decision-makers—as reflected by its lack of mention in this year’s annual enlargement report, despite hopes to the contrary. Unfortunately, these concerns are supported by certain proposals that have recently made the rounds in Brussels, such as the Franco-German expert paper that advocated for a multi-tier European Union. While differentiation is useful as a temporary solution on the way to full integration, anything less than full membership cannot be the final destination for Ukrainians who have risked their lives for the chance to become an equal and integral part of the European family.

As they move beyond the largely symbolic stage of opening accession negotiations, EU leaders must therefore walk a fine line in approaching enlargement to Ukraine. The bloc should make crystal clear that it is committed to Kyiv’s eventual full EU membership, that this full membership can only come about upon the establishment of a durable peace in Ukraine, and that in the meantime it will put in the work to get Ukraine as close as possible to the finish line. The European Union should also make clear that only peace, not full territorial control, is required. While pressuring Ukraine to negotiate is out of the question, if Kyiv chooses to pursue a peace agreement that would leave it without control over its 1991 borders, the European Union should be ready to welcome it as a member—with the precedent of Cypriot EU membership demonstrating its capacity to do so.

One may presently compare the European Union to a gated community discussing the prospect of incorporating a neighboring house that has caught on fire. All know that this fire is likely to spread, yet none wish to acknowledge it out loud, for fear of upsetting the prevailing mood of optimism that assumes the fire will soon fizzle out. It is time for a reality check. Magical thinking serves neither the interests of Ukraine nor of the European Union. It better to engage in the hard work of coming up with practical solutions—even if they are less than ideal.

 

Nick Lokker

Nick Lokker

December 2023

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