26th Feb 2024


The realists vs idealists Brussels battle on Ukraine's EU accession

  • Ukraine president Volodymr Zelensky meeting EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. The danger is that accession status to the EU, the so-called 'waiting room of Europe', can lead to unfulfilled expectations — on both sides (Photo: European Commission)
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The formal granting of any EU accession status is seen as a crucial milestone in Kyiv's path towards Europe. But in reality even the initiation of formal accession negotiations, on which a decision is to be taken soon in Brussels, is anything but straightforward.

And, as the experience of other current candidate countries shows, the accession to this so-called 'waiting room of Europe' can lead to unfulfilled expectations — on both sides.

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That, in turn, has often led to twin problems: euroscepticism in candidate countries, and 'expansion fatigue' in existing member states.

To break this chain reaction of unintended consequences, Brussels should embrace an 'idealist' perspective in its interactions with the Kyiv leadership, by which reforms are the overarching priority, but with significant spillover effects to other spheres in the long-term.

The problem of the 'realist' approach

So far, a certain paradox is obvious in Brussels' interaction with (potential) candidate countries, not least Ukraine.

Whilst the candidate countries' internal reforms are formally usually put very high on the agenda, they are — in reality —overridden by competing interests, either geopolitical or commercial.

Within Brussels, a camp of realists competes against a camp of idealists.

The geopolitical factor symbolises crucial differences in perception and outcomes: realists perceive Russia as a reason for caution and restraint in assessing Ukraine's reforms, fearing that any robust criticism of Ukraine's corruption or entrenched poverty may inadvertently bolster Russian propaganda.

In contrast, idealists posit that Ukraine's internal reform success is its most potent weapon against Moscow.

Yet the dominance of the realist camp in the Brussels' bureaucracy explains the EU's past and current behaviour towards Ukraine — in which reform shortcomings and failures are rarely openly called out.

Because of this caution in Brussels, the chance to foster internal, societal pressure within Ukraine itself for reforms, as the population sees the path towards the EU as its own overarching priority, is continuously missed.

And thus the self-fulfilling accession fatigue across the existing 27-member bloc is the result.

In an ideal world, this bottom-up pressure from Ukrainian society would not be necessary, and supposedly reformist politicians in candidate countries would act according to their pro-European speeches.

However, knowing that Brussels often prioritises other factors over reform in these states, their political elites make use of it to avoid painful domestic changes. Not least, for themselves — such as in the anti-corruption field.

As a result, a sort of charade is played: of partial or half-hearted reforms by candidate countries, and a pretence a seriously believing these reforms by Brussels.

In this game, upholding a European/EU future, such as in Ukraine, serves both actors, but the actual progress towards this goal, by conducting painful and far-stretching reforms, such as in the anti-corruption realm, enjoys a much lower priority.

This pretension leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy: by failing to openly call out pretend reforms, an important factor in facilitating deep and comprehensive political change in Ukraine is missing — which will, in turn, lead Brussels to keep the actual door towards the EU shut for Kyiv, as a non-reformed country would be a huge burden in and for the EU.

It is therefore obvious that in the real world, where actors on both sides prioritise easier more superficial issues than deep reforms, accession negotiations are mostly an act. The actors/politicians might change as Brussels negotiates with Kyiv, Belgrade, or Ankara, but the outcome will already be predictable.

To overcome this, Brussels must play a long-term game. In the military realm, the EU has already started to act accordingly by making clear that Kyiv will be supported as long as necessary to repel the Russian aggression.

However, internal reforms should follow the opposite logic of military support: they must be as quick as possible.

This is because momentum in reforming political institutions tends to disappear quickly, and a newly-enforced status quo is often hard to overcome.

This explains while the Ukrainian system has largely kept its key features since 1991 and the downfall of the Soviet Union.

Now, the momentum to change systemic vices such as high levels of corruption can be leveraged by a new emphasis in accession negotiations of prioritising reforms over other criteria.

In other words, it is time to embrace an idealist perspective in Brussels now. It is time to call out fake or ersatz reforms in order to catalyse the societal pressure necessary inside Ukraine to deter policymakers from perpetuating a counterproductive status quo.

But Brussels must also prioritise Ukraine's democratic, long-term success for the sake of overcoming its own accession fatigue and to turn the current, endless, purgatorial waiting room of the EU into a preparatory crammer school for future EU newcomers.

By being idealist, Brussels can have both in the future: reforms in candidate countries and increased geopolitical power. By being realist, it will likely have neither.

Author bio

Dr Michael Martin Richter is the author of Power, Politics, and Anti-Corruption Reforms in Ukraine: The Role of Western Actors and was previously research fellow at the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen as well as a fellow at Harvard University and is soon-to-be postdoc research fellow at the University of Surrey within the Horizon 2020 REDEMOS project on EU democracy promotion abroad. His research focuses on democracy promotion in the post-Soviet space and his analyses have been published, among others, in Global Policy, the Journal of Common Market Studies, Politics and Governance, Vox Ukraine, and New Eastern Europe.


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

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