Monday

23rd May 2022

Opinion

Ukraine's EU membership bid - symbolic, yes, but essential

  • Ukraine's is as credible a candidacy for EU membership as can be (Photo: European Parliament)
Listen to article

On the fifth day of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, president Volodymyr Zelensky submitted an EU membership application for his country. Ukraine chose Europe in its "revolution of dignity" in 2013 and paid dearly with lives, land, and a separatist conflict in its east.

It chooses Europe again as Russian forces march in and shell its cities intent to use all force necessary to bring Ukraine back into the folds of a Russian empire.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Ukraine's is as credible a candidacy for EU membership as can be.

Ukraine's application is about symbolism. In an emotional address to the European Parliament, Zelensky announced with pride that Ukrainians have proven themselves to be equal to Europeans and called on European leaders to show that they recognise the country's European choice as Ukrainians fight for rights and for freedom.

The EU should rise to the historical significance of this moment. It is time that EU leaders together with those of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova sign a political declaration – similar to the 2003 Thessaloniki declaration on the Western Balkans – recognising in no uncertain terms the EU membership perspective of the three countries and their hard-fought choice of democracy over tyranny and authoritarianism.

Accession to the EU, or even simply the granting of candidate status, is a long and unglamorous process.

Countries in the Western Balkans can attest. They have had to demonstrate over many years a good track record of meeting the Copenhagen membership criteria together with a variety of specific political requirements and the obligations in their Stabilisaiton and Association Agreements before EU institutions would even accept a membership application as "credible".

While all countries in the Western Balkans have had their membership perspective to join the EU recognised since 2003, only some have been granted candidate status, often many years later.

Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are still only "potential candidate countries". Bosnia and Herzegovina finally applied for EU membership in 2016 and it has taken three years alone for the European Commission to issue an opinion on its candidacy.

This is probably not what Zelensky had in mind when he sent the letter of application in the middle of war.

As the commission considers Ukraine's candidacy, together with those of Georgia and Moldova, who followed suit in applying a few days later, it might find that its governance and institutional reform fall short of the required level of compliance.

There is no doubt that at this moment, Ukraine will not be able to fill out the detailed accession questionnaire needed for the Commission's opinion and align legislation to the EU acquis. Ukraine needs immediate support and Ukraine needs symbolism.

A membership perspective is a promise for the long-term future of the countries in the EU. It does not bind the EU to accelerate accession before the countries are politically and institutionally ready and it is not an irreversible commitment, as the long-abandoned talks with Turkey illustrate.

And - obviously - if Putin succeeds in his invasion, succeeds in installing a client or puppet regime in Kyiv, that is not going to be a "Ukraine" that joins the EU.

Symbolism matters

A membership perspective is not much more than what is already guaranteed in article 49 of the Treaty on European Union. It is, in no small degree, a symbolic gesture. But these gestures matter both to provide moral and political support to Ukrainians under attack and to undermine Putin's claims to Ukraine and the rest of the region.

A positive reply would do little to escalate the conflict further – Putin has already showed that he believes he has a free hand in the region: in Ukraine, but also in Georgia where he intervened militarily in 2008 and in Moldova where he sustains a separatist conflict.

But anything short of that solemn commitment by the EU would send a dangerous and emboldening signal to the Russian president, who for years has been making the case that the West is not truly committed to the countries of the region.

A membership perspective has practical value too for the countries truly aspiring to advance reforms and integration.

It will open the door for the EU to spell out the political criteria for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova before it can grant them candidate status.

One of the weak links in their current EU Association Agreements is the lack of clear objectives and dedicated monitoring in the political and rule of law area – something on which civil society has long insisted.

A membership perspective would be a step change in the mandate of EU institutions to engage in and support the countries in their reforms. It would help with access to more funds that Ukraine badly needs to secure its economic resilience during and after the war and to speed up its energy transition.

Ukraine has already made significant advances in building a functioning market economy and integrating towards the EU market by implementing a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area with the EU.

It is in a good position to integrate deeper in areas of the single market, from agriculture to financial services, energy and digital, that would offer practical benefits to its citizens such as lower roaming tariffs and faster banking transactions, for instance.

But these are for better days. What Ukraine needs now – in addition to essential military defense and humanitarian support – is a reaffirmation of its civilizational choice and the EU should not fail to deliver it.

Author bio

Iskra Kirova is senior policy analyst at the Open Society Foundations.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Orbán, Ukraine, Putin and Hungary's election

By pursuing Putin as a close ally in the weeks leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, Orbán alienated himself from all other European leaders. Now, he should continue to distance itself from Putin and those linked to him.

Column

'Never Again' is still the essence of the EU

Leon Trotsky once said: "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." The will to prevent war is what started European integration. And it is still what propels it forward.

A call to impose 'sanctions from hell' on Russia

A call for "sanctions from hell" and to put pressure on Putin on every front, by the former Ukrainian ambassador to the EU, Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, now back in the capital, Kyiv.

Will 'Putin's Nato' follow Warsaw Pact into obscurity?

Valdimir Putin's equivalent to Nato — the Collective Security Treaty Organization of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Belarus — is convening in Moscow next week to give cover that Russia is not alone in its war against Ukraine.

The EU Parliament Covid inquiry: the questions MEPs must ask

A basic lack of transparency around the EU's vaccines procurement negotiations has prevented effective public and parliamentary scrutiny. It has also made it impossible to answer some of the key questions we put forward here.

News in Brief

  1. Germany would back Russia oil embargo without Hungary
  2. UK to send 'hundreds' of migrants to Rwanda each year
  3. Norwegian knife attacks were domestic dispute
  4. Sweden hits back at Turkey's 'disinformation' in Nato bid
  5. Germany's Schröder gives up one of two Russia jobs
  6. G7 countries pledge €18bn in financial aid for Ukraine
  7. Italian unions strike in protest over military aid for Ukraine
  8. Russia cuts gas supply to Finland

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic delegation visits Nordic Bridges in Canada
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersClear to proceed - green shipping corridors in the Nordic Region
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers agree on international climate commitments
  4. UNESDA - SOFT DRINKS EUROPEEfficient waste collection schemes, closed-loop recycling and access to recycled content are crucial to transition to a circular economy in Europe
  5. UiPathNo digital future for the EU without Intelligent Automation? Online briefing Link

Latest News

  1. Are Orban's Covid powers now the 'new normal' in Hungary?
  2. Missing guns amid rising far-right hate in EU
  3. MEPs boycott trip after Israeli snub
  4. What Europe still needs to do to save its bees
  5. Remembering Falcone: How Italy almost became a narco-state
  6. Economic worries and Hungary on the spot Next WEEK
  7. MEPs urge sanctioning the likes of ex-chancellor Schröder
  8. MEPs call for a more forceful EU response to Kremlin gas cut

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us