At a summit in Brussels yesterday, leaders of the European Union’s 27 member states approved Ukraine’s candidacy for membership in the EU. The decision will boost the morale of Ukrainians fighting to defend their democracy. For now, however, it’s less clear that enlargement to Ukraine is in the best interests of Europe as a whole.
Ukraine’s reasons for seeking EU membership are plain. As the country deals with the destruction caused by war and economic collapse, closer ties with Europe will help reassure investors, motivate returnees and sustain political reforms. The EU is already a bigger economic partner for Ukraine than Russia is, with the union accounting for more than 40% of Ukraine’s total trade in 2021.
Yet Ukraine’s candidacy presents immense challenges. The EU’s accession framework requires countries to be functioning democracies with market economies and governing structures able to incorporate the entire body of EU law. Notwithstanding the West’s support, Ukraine remains a relatively poor country where reforms have often been frustrated by high levels of corruption and powerful oligarch interests. The government of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has made strides in improving transparency and accountability, but even Ukraine’s most ardent supporters concede it will take years for Kyiv to rebuild its economy and bring its institutions up to the standards of other EU members.
There are also legitimate worries about what the EU can absorb. Outside of Ukraine, the bloc is considering applications from six candidate countries, including four in the Balkans. Decision-making structures on important issues are already borderline dysfunctional since so much has to be decided by unanimous vote (witness Hungary’s recent veto of an EU-wide deal on corporation tax). Looming economic risks are likely to deepen the project’s chronic instability. Admitting Ukraine into the EU would also tilt the bloc’s balance of power, potentially heightening internal divisions: Ukraine would be Europe’s fifth largest member by population, which would give it outsized voting weight for qualified-majority decisions in the European Council and more seats in the European Parliament, where population size matters.
Having endorsed the start of the accession process, Europe’s leaders should be forthright with Ukraine about the work required before the country can be approved for full membership. Integrating a war-torn country of more than 40 million into the EU — with every right and expectation of a full-fledged member — is, for the moment at least, hard to envision. The EU should rule out any offer of “immediate” accession, which Zelenskiy has previously called for, and reiterate that the process can’t be rushed. (The last new member was Croatia in 2013; its membership negotiations lasted a decade.) While acknowledging that Ukrainians are fighting for values on which the EU was founded, European leaders should press Kyiv to strengthen the rule of law and governance and implement broader economic reforms that will help Ukraine rebuild sustainably and reduce its historic dependence on Russia. This process should prove salutary for Ukraine, however its membership bid proceeds.
In fact, the obvious difficulties with Ukraine’s bid suggest Europe needs to rethink its approach to admitting new members altogether. The EU needs a geometry that accommodates different appetites and capacities for integration. French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal for a political community that offers cooperation in areas such as energy and security policy deserves exploring. Moving to such a system would provide a way for non-EU countries to partner with Europe beyond the more rigid and trade-focused EU association agreements (which Ukraine already has).
“Ukraine belongs to the European family,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in Kyiv last week. True. But an essential familial responsibility is honesty. Europe should give Ukraine’s bid a fair hearing. It should not promise the impossible.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
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NATO Must Bring Finland, Sweden and Turkey Together: James Stavridis
The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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