As the brutal war in Ukraine enters its second year, European and US military assistance has clearly made a difference in helping the country beat back the Russian invading forces. But now Europe must do more. It should grant President Volodymyr Zelensky’s request to accelerate Ukraine’s membership bid to the European Union. This would give the country a place at the European table and the economic and political benefits that can assure Ukraine’s future once the war is over.
Zelensky reiterated Ukraine’s request for EU membership when he visited Brussels earlier this month. Speaking to the European Parliament first and then the European Council, which comprises all member state heads of state, he declared: “I need more weapons now, and I want a fast start of EU-membership negotiations.”
Full membership is not around the corner. It requires a lengthy process to ensure that Ukraine meets all requirements. But Ukraine could be given a fast track to start negotiations. That should happen this year. It is already advanced in aligning with a vast number of EU standards, rules, and regulations. The hard part will be the “fundamentals of the accession process” as expressed by the European Commission.
That requirement means that Ukraine has to enact new laws on the selection of judges and put up a stronger fight against corruption on all levels, including through anti–money laundering legislation, minority protection, and an anti-oligarch law to limit the influence of notoriously corrupt business moguls in the economic, political, and public realms.
And of course, there has to be peace. Ukraine will not be able to enter the European Union with unsolved border conflicts. Cyprus joined in 2004 without having settled the division of the island, and this is generally seen as having been a mistake. And the Cyprus conflict between the Greek part (which has joined the European Union) and the Turkish occupied part is still a minor conflict compared to Ukraine.
Ukraine applied for EU membership five days after the war started
As the war continues, Ukraine, as well as the rest of the world, must plan for different scenarios. Europe, the United States, and many allies have been united in supplying weapons and military equipment, as well as economic, humanitarian, and political support. The European Union has also imposed, in tight coordination with allies, no fewer than ten packages of sanctions against Russia. The Russian economy has weakened, but no end to the war is in sight.
Russia’s aim with the invasion was to eradicate Ukraine as a nation, identity, language, and state. It is therefore a threat also to Europe and the current security order. A victory for Russia risks triggering further Russian aggression. Ukraine must be able to choose its future independently and be free to apply for membership in international organizations such as the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Ukraine handed in a formal application to join the European Union on February 28 last year, only five days after the Russian invasion. Four months later, a united European Union declared the country a formal candidate. This status was also granted in March 2022 to Moldova, a country where reports of a pro-Russian coup circulated earlier this month followed by pro-Russian demonstrations. Georgia still needs to wait, as it has not yet completed many reforms. European prime ministers, the president of the European Commission Ursula von den Leyen, and the president of the European Council Charles Michel, have all been in Kyiv, confirming that the future of Ukraine lies within the European Union but also underlining that the process towards membership is merit based.
EU enlargement policy can be a slow process, as the Balkan countries know firsthand. It can take several years to even start negotiating, even after a country receives formal status as a candidate. Moreover, decisions on membership require unanimity. A single EU country can object, which Greece and Bulgaria have done over North Macedonia.
Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia have had since 2016 an advanced free trade agreement and an association agreement with the European Union, giving them access to the internal market. The agreement also aligns regulations, standards, and rules with those of the European Union. All three countries enjoy a visa facilitation agreement, meaning that their citizens can travel freely to and within the European Union for 90 days. (This agreement enabled Ukrainians to flee to EU countries after the outbreak of the war.) Trade between Ukraine and Europe has doubled since the free trade agreement of 2016, and the gradual alignment with EU laws and regulations (called the acquis) has facilitated the reform and liberalization of the economy and public administration in all three countries.
Ukraine has worked hard to fulfill the conditions despite the war
A country must fulfill economic, political, and administrative criteria in order to join the European Union. In the beginning of February this year, the Commission presented a first evaluation report on progress in Ukraine and Moldova. The report followed the structure of the 31 chapters that are up for negotiations.
Remarkably, Ukraine has worked hard on its EU application despite the war, and the Commission report acknowledges that great progress has been made. There is still work to do, obviously, in everything from phytosanitary standards to climate and modern media laws, from competition policy to stabilizing the rule of law and addressing corruption. President Zelensky has been merciless in firing high level officials suspected of corruption involving military equipment and economic support from allies. Polls also show that Ukrainians are becoming less tolerant of corruption, as “every dollar or euro sent for the war needs to go directly to our soldiers, not into the pockets of bureaucrats,” as one Ukrainian I spoke to recently said.
It usually takes several years to negotiate a full membership. The European Union has to navigate between the need to support Ukraine and give the country hope on the one hand and not softening its standards on the other hand. At the same time, the Balkan countries are frustrated about being neglected for so many years. Only this last summer, formal negotiations opened with Albania and North Macedonia—both applied in 2009 and were granted candidate status in 2014. Also, the problems related to the rule of law in Poland and Hungary are worrying many member states about loosening the rules.
Again, there has to be peace in Ukraine before it can join, but the country should be given a fast track to start negotiations, as a sign to Ukrainians that they are welcome and as a signal to Russia that Ukraine, and other independent countries, are free to make their own choices and alliances.
The reconstruction of Ukraine will be immensely costly. The Kyiv School of Economics has been keeping track of all material damage caused by the war. By the end of last year, the school estimated the need at $120 billion. The World Bank has estimated the need at $350 billion, and the Ukraine government has put it at a full $750 billion. Naturally, with Russian bombings, the figure grows on a daily basis. The authors of a report from the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) propose some kind of global plan, similar to the post–World War II Marshall Plan, with transparent and coordinated international donations that would need to pour in fast. The CEPR report suggests that the European Commission should lead the coordination. It further recommends that the reconstruction include a high-tech physical and virtual infrastructure, integrating Ukraine fully with EU standards.
One question that is debated fiercely is whether confiscated Russian assets can be used for the reconstruction of Ukraine. The answer is legally complicated, and the current Swedish EU-presidency has appointed a group of experts to analyze what can be done with the Russian Central Bank reserves frozen in Europe. In a future peace agreement, it is also expected that Russia will have to pay considerable sums in war indemnities.
Ukraine should start negotiations with the EU this year
Ukraine should be given a date as soon as possible to start formal negotiations. How long they will take is hard to say. In the meantime, Ukraine could enjoy some sectoral integration. It is already well integrated in the internal market in areas such as telecommunications, financial services, and the maritime sector. It has been given essentially full trade access to the internal market and is part of Europe's open borders area and electricity grids. Other sectors could be opened while it is waiting, like transport, research, and energy. The Financial Times has proposed that Ukraine join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) with Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland. That would give them full access to most areas of cooperation, but no seat at the table or access to funds. But the current EFTA states are small, likeminded countries with no wish to enter as full members. This is not the case for Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has made it crystal clear that it will not be content with a B-membership.
If elections can be held in Ukraine, voters could elect members or observers to the European Parliament at the general election in May 2024. This would allow parliamentarians to prepare further for full membership. The European Union must also redefine its enlargement policy vis-à-vis the Balkans, Moldova, and Georgia. And it must change its decision-making procedures and budget allocations as well as consider the geopolitical implications of having eight to ten new members soon. The most brutal war on the European continent since World War II must force the European Union to courageously revise old models and procedures.
1. The European Free Trade Association was established in 1960 for the promotion of free trade between the European Union and several other countries. Several countries have since left the EFTA to become EU members. In 1994 an agreement entered into force that brings together the European Union with the European Economic Area (EEA) countries of Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway in the single market.
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