Ukrainian accession to the EU: run now, walk later?

Simon Usherwood |

The question of whether and how Ukraine joins the EU ranks relatively low on the list of priority topics right now, for reasons that are both too obvious and too horrific to discuss right now.

However, it is still a question that demands attention. The rapid return of the Commission’s preliminary questionnaire by the Ukrainian government – 11 days after receiving it – sets the stage for a rapid publication of the Commission’s opinion, to then allow the June European Council to declare the country an official candidate.

For comparison, Bosnia & Herzegovina took over three years to get that status. Even Finland – the all-time record-holder for speediest accession – took eight months. Ukraine is on track for half that time.

So it’s all good. Right?

Not really.

As I set out in the thread below, speed now has come by avoiding some difficult questions (data here):

Crucially, the EU has side-stepped the Copenhagen criteria, which is has used for the past 30 years to gatekeep accession. Whether you accept the official line that the criteria are for everyone’s benefit, or see them just as another barrier that member states use to brush off awkward applicants, they still speak to the crucial question of what the EU stands for.

Remove the current war from the equation and the Commission would likely have spent an age on screening and scrutinising Ukraine over the robustness of its political system, the effectiveness of its anti-corruption work and the capacity of its economy to cope with being dropped into a huge and much-richer single market. The war adds another huge challenge on top of all that (not least because of the Art.42 TEU obligations to mutual defence).

However, the war has undoubtedly also thrown all that over.

The geopolitical – maybe even civilisational – imperative to support and protect Ukraine has already engendered huge shifts in the EU, both politically and in policy terms. The hard push to get to candidate status is reflection of that, and rightly so.

But the EU is also well-aware of the limits to its powers. In particular, securing internal reforms is much more effective when you can dangle membership as a reward, as compared to the limited tools available for sanctioning those inside. Take your pick of contemporary examples.

So does the EU continue to push that to one side and work out the problems once Ukraine is inside? Or does it press for changes beforehand?

In either case, Ukraine might well lack the capacity to make the requested reforms, especially in the context of the on-going conflict. Plus any concessions on reforms you make for Ukraine will be taken up by other states as a demonstration that the EU doesn’t really need to be quite so difficult and intrusive.

As I conclude in my thread, none of this should stop the EU and Ukraine working together hard to get to the latter’s accession: morally, strategically and politically it is the right thing to do. But that will also require frank and deeply engaged discussions about how to square the circle that both sides face. Ukraine needs membership, but membership of an organisation that is still worth joining: the EU needs to protect its interests, but not if the price is the collapse of a democratic state.