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EU candidate status for Ukraine is a geopolitical and moral imperative

Amanda Paul , Ricardo Borges de Castro

Date: 21/06/2022
On 17 June, the European Commission recommended that Ukraine (and Moldova) be granted EU candidate country status. At the next European Council, EU leaders should follow suit sans conditions. Not doing so would be a geopolitical and moral blunder.

A test of strength, character and strategic vision

On 17 June, the European Commission recommended that Ukraine (and Moldova) be granted EU candidate country status with the “understanding” that further reform steps are needed. This decision is of historical significance for both war-torn Ukraine and Europe.

Since Mr Putin began his brutal war on 24 February, the Ukrainian people have been fighting not only for their existence and sovereignty but also to defend European values of democracy, fundamental rights and freedoms. But this is a fight that actually started during the 2004 Orange Revolution and through the 2013 Euromaidan protests.

Now that the Commission has given a positive recommendation, Ukraine should receive candidate country status without ex ante conditions at the upcoming European Council meeting on 23 and 24 June.

This would send a strong signal that Ukraine is part of the EU family, not a distant relative. It would be a huge morale boost for Ukrainians at a critical juncture in the war. It would clarify the nature of the future relationship between Kyiv and Brussels, as well as the direction of Ukraine’s development in the medium and long terms.

What is more, it will send a strong message to the Kremlin that the EU’s geopolitical awakening is a reality and not just a myth. A failure to offer candidate status would be a mistake and reveal a divided Europe without a clear strategic direction. Indeed, this would be a gift to Russia and other global actors that wish to overturn the current international order. Once again, the EU would be speaking loudly but acting timidly.

Finally, any step short of granting Ukraine candidate status could undermine transatlantic unity when it is needed more than ever to face Russia’s threat to Europe’s security.

The first step in a long journey

Candidate country status is not a watertight guarantee of EU membership. Rather, it is the first step on a long road of reform. There is no quick entry or shortcut into the EU club. With the war still raging, Kyiv will struggle to rapidly implement the totality of the accession criteria, or the Copenhagen criteria.

But Ukraine is not starting from scratch. It is implementing an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU since 2014. Large chunks of requirements have already been fulfilled successfully. Many of the benchmarks involved are identical to the Copenhagen criteria. As Commission President von der Leyen acknowledged, Ukraine has already fulfilled 70% of EU rules, norms and standards.

While many challenges persist, particularly on issues like corruption, judicial independence or the undue influence of oligarchs, today’s Ukraine is a totally different country from a decade ago. Indeed, Ukraine has made more progress in its reform path than some Western Balkan nations currently in EU membership negotiations.

Ukrainian civil society also plays a vital role. Vibrant and robust civil society activism and pressure have been crucial in Ukraine’s transformation and European aspirations. Dynamic and resourceful at both the national and local levels, civil society has acted as an important watchdog over the government and will remain a driving force in the months and years ahead. The reforms that Ukraine needs to undertake are not only part of an EU checklist for membership; they are also in the interest of Ukrainians.

No alternatives, no fudging

Confirming Ukraine as a candidate country requires the unanimous approval of the Union’s 27 leaders.

Despite warm words of support and solidarity, some EU countries remain reluctant. This reflects their longstanding, meagre political appetite for widening the bloc, especially when the EU is already reeling from multiple crises and its enlargement policy is no longer fit for purpose. France and Germany finally signalled their support for Ukraine’s “immediate candidate status” during a visit to Kyiv on 16 June, and the Netherlands seems to be getting on board. Meanwhile, other countries like Denmark and Portugal remain sceptical.

Furthermore, it is unclear whether EU leaders plan to make the candidate status offer conditional on Ukraine meeting some additional requirements. Such an act would be politically and strategically incomprehensible, given the European Commission’s evaluation and positive avis. It would give the impression that artificial barriers are being erected in the candidate status process.

Leaving Ukraine in limbo with a half-hearted membership promise would be a recipe for disaster. Kyiv would feel abandoned, and Moscow would get the impression that the EU is not serious about Ukraine and remains divided and weak. In other words, it would be a boon to be exploited by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine and bolster Mr Putin’s drive to build a sphere of influence in Europe’s eastern flank.

The enlargement Zeitenwende

To further boost its geopolitical credentials, the EU should reinvigorate its enlargement policy as a matter of priority. The bloc must not forget the benefits of enlargement’s soft power, and offer a more credible EU membership process equipped with better tools and incentives.

There is an urgent need to inject new life into the EU enlargement process via innovative ideas and move away from the current all-or-nothing approach, where candidates have to wait until the end of a very long process to be integrated into the EU. This approach could and should be replaced by phased integration which rewards progress in reform with staged steps of integration into the EU via different policy areas. Any reform reversal should also result in a freezing of the process.

But, if indeed, the war launched by Russia on Ukraine on the 24 February was a “watershed moment”, in the words of Ursula von der Leyen; “un tournant dans l’Histoire de l’Europe”, as ushered by Emmanuel Macron; or a “Zeitenwendeà la Olaf Scholz, then enlargement policy needs as much of a rethink as the EU’s energy policy or supply chains.

A third way?

President Macron’s ‘European political community’ idea is also on the table. A sort of interim status or ‘halfway house’, it would facilitate the strengthening of relations between the EU and countries in different stages of the accession process – and even other European countries that do not necessarily wish to become members. As it has been communicated so far, it would be open to all non-EU European countries, from Ukraine to the UK.

With little meat on the bones and perceived as an alternative to membership, Ukraine immediately rejected the concept.

But if Macron’s concept is conceived not as an alternative or an expedient but rather as an arrangement that adds real and immediate value, then it should not be dismissed rashly.

A geopolitical and moral imperative

A geopolitical EU will not be made of speeches but concrete decisions, actions and strategic vision. Granting Ukraine with EU candidate country status sans conditions is imperative to making the Union a more relevant and reliable global actor. It is also Europe’s moral duty to all the Ukrainians that have shed tears, blood and life for their European dream.

Ricardo Borges de Castro is an Associate Director and Head of the Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre.

Amanda Paul is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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