8th Dec 2023


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)
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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.

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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.


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

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