Why a Euro­pean per­spec­tive for Ukraine cor­re­sponds to German interests

Foto: Shut­ter­stock, Mykola Komarovskyy

In this analy­ses Dmytro Shulga argues for the EU and specif­i­cally Germany to con­sider it’s own strate­gic gains in offer­ing Ukraine a way to full EU mem­ber­ship over an extended amount of time. 

During a three-way tele­vi­sion debate on foreign policy between the can­di­dates of Germany’s main parties for the Chan­cel­lor­ship in September’s general elec­tion, Ukrain­ian Pres­i­dent Zelen­sky asked them about the pos­si­bil­ity of Ukraine joining the EU one day, but he received rather sober­ing answers from the par­tic­i­pants, who pri­ori­tised EU deci­sion-making reform and the inte­gra­tion of the Western Balkans.

The responses high­lighted a very uncom­fort­able reality for policy-makers in Ukraine. Of all the coun­tries neigh­bour­ing the EU, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are the only demo­c­ra­tic coun­tries with EU aspi­ra­tions. However, they have not yet been offered  any prospect of poten­tial EU membership.

In 2004, fol­low­ing the east­ward enlarge­ment of the EU, the Euro­pean Neigh­bour­hood Policy was launched under the general motto ‘every­thing but insti­tu­tions’. In response to the peace­ful ‘Orange Rev­o­lu­tion’ and sub­se­quent demo­c­ra­tic elec­tions in Ukraine in late 2004, the EU made a more con­crete offer by start­ing nego­ti­a­tions (first with Ukraine, and later with Moldova and Georgia) on an asso­ci­a­tion agree­ment with a deep and com­pre­hen­sive free trade area.

Euro­pean aspi­ra­tions aknowledged?

In 2014, the EU signed these agree­ments with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. In the pre­am­bles, the EU ‘acknowl­edged the Euro­pean aspi­ra­tions’ and ‘wel­comed its Euro­pean choice’ of the respec­tive coun­tries and at the same time ‘left open the way for future pro­gres­sive devel­op­ments’ in their rela­tions. Since then, rela­tions have indeed pro­gressed sig­nif­i­cantly. With the EU’s support, the three coun­tries began the mod­ern­iza­tion of their economies, diver­si­fy­ing trade flows, increas­ing energy secu­rity, and strength­en­ing mobil­ity (visa-free travel), civil society and polit­i­cal pluralism.

Despite Russian aggres­sion, Ukraine has in recent years expe­ri­enced not only a ‘people’s rev­o­lu­tion’ but also free and fair elec­tions, peace­ful demo­c­ra­tic changes of gov­ern­ment, and ongoing reforms to ensure good gov­er­nance and the rule of law – far from being com­plete, of course. Still, there is a pro-EU gov­ern­ment in place, and a strate­gic goal of joining the EU con­tained in the Ukrain­ian Con­sti­tu­tion (as in the Geor­gian one). Thus, Ukraine has embraced ‘Europe’ and its core demo­c­ra­tic values as part of its modern national identity.

There is wide public expec­ta­tion in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia that the EU will take a further step and rec­og­nize a long-term mem­ber­ship per­spec­tive for these three coun­tries. It is broadly under­stood as a long-term issue, requir­ing many years or even decades, and depen­dent on meeting strict criteria.

Can­di­date Status for Ukraine doesn’t have to be imme­di­ately given

It does not mean imme­di­ately grant­ing can­di­date status. First, the aspir­ing coun­tries need to demon­strate that they meet the polit­i­cal cri­te­ria: sta­bil­ity of the insti­tu­tions guar­an­tee­ing democ­racy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for and pro­tec­tion of minori­ties. It is evident that it will take many more years for these coun­tries to meet these cri­te­ria to become can­di­dates for mem­ber­ship. Thus, by the time the can­di­dacy and acces­sion nego­ti­a­tions mate­ri­alise, both the EU as well as the respec­tive coun­tries will be very dif­fer­ent from now.

EU treaty, Euro­pean Par­lia­ment in favor for Ukraine’s aspirations

One should not forget the basic fact that, pur­suant to Article 49 of the Treaty on Euro­pean Union, any Euro­pean state may apply to become a member of the EU pro­vided that it adheres to the EU stan­dards of democ­racy and the rule of law. So, there is no objec­tive reason why the EU should not rec­og­nize such a poten­tial long-term per­spec­tive for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

It is also remark­able that the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, which rep­re­sents the EU cit­i­zens, has repeat­edly rec­og­nized a mem­ber­ship per­spec­tive for these three coun­tries. These calls have been sup­ported by an over­whelm­ing major­ity of MEPs across all main­stream polit­i­cal groups – includ­ing by the Chris­t­ian Democ­rats, Social Democ­rats, Lib­er­als and Greens.

So, the only reason why such a Euro­pean per­spec­tive has not yet been rec­og­nized by the EU is the lack of con­sen­sus among the EU member states. While Eastern members (Poland and others) have been sup­port­ing their neigh­bours’ poten­tial acces­sion to the EU, other members — in par­tic­u­lar, Germany (also France and the Nether­lands) — have been reluctant.

What Germany could gain or lose regard­ing China’s role

There are a number of good argu­ments, however, why the next German gov­ern­ment could find it in its own inter­ests to re-con­sider its stance on opening up a Euro­pean per­spec­tive for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

First, deep­en­ing the ties of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to the EU would be the best Euro­pean policy response – effec­tive but not provoca­tive – to Russian aggres­siv­ity in the region and beyond. It would help strengthen resilience of the three coun­tries and at the same time avoid esca­lat­ing con­fronta­tion with Russia.

More­over, in the long run, inte­gra­tion to the EU and other Western insti­tu­tions could help these coun­tries to mod­ern­ize and thus raise their soft power attrac­tive­ness for res­i­dents in regions cur­rently occu­pied by Russia – in a similar way to what worked once for Western Germany.

On the other hand, if the EU showed a lack of ambi­tion, it would play right into the hands of other powers as they try to increase their influ­ence in the region. While Russia’s role in vio­lat­ing inter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized borders with mil­i­tary force is obvious, Chinese policy in the region pri­or­i­tizes eco­nomic coop­er­a­tion, and China has become #1 trading partner of these three countries.

A true wake-up call for the EU should be the recent signing of an agree­ment between Ukraine and China to coop­er­ate in build­ing infra­struc­ture. In this context, the Chinese press openly wrote that ‘Ukraine can only embrace China more since the EU and NATO have not shown much inter­est in Ukraine joining’. These trends may have far-reach­ing con­se­quences for the EU’s key inter­ests and values in the imme­di­ate neigh­bour­hood and on the global scale.

EU is wasting pre­cious time

The EU should not con­tinue wasting time. There is no need to wait until full inte­gra­tion of the Western Balkan coun­tries before opening a per­spec­tive for Eastern Euro­pean part­ners. Accord­ing to recent research by the Brus­sels-based Centre for Euro­pean Policy Studies (CEPS), Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are already becom­ing increas­ingly com­pa­ra­ble in their align­ment on the EU acquis with the Western Balkans. So, the EU needs to be objec­tive and non-dis­crim­i­na­tory in its approach, and increase com­pe­ti­tion for meeting the criteria.

Germany and the EU need to support the new democ­ra­cies in Europe. An EU per­spec­tive would provide pro-Euro­pean reform­ers in these coun­tries with pow­er­ful lever­age. Con­versely, failure to rec­i­p­ro­cate by the EU would help the anti-Euro­pean domes­tic polit­i­cal forces, oli­garchs, nation­al­ists as well as regional neo-author­i­tar­i­an­ists to reverse these coun­tries’ course.

Euro­pean Green Deal and Ukraine

EU inte­gra­tion of the three coun­tries is also in line with Germany’s climate policy, as it would help to imple­ment the long-term Euro­pean Green Deal goals of decar­bon­i­sa­tion and a climate-neutral Euro­pean con­ti­nent – not only by nec­es­sary adjust­ments of tra­di­tional indus­tries but also by coop­er­a­tion in devel­op­ing new tech­nolo­gies for green growth. For example, the Euro­pean Commission’s Hydro­gen Strat­egy for a climate-neutral Europe already defines Ukraine as a pri­or­ity partner for the EU in devel­op­ing this technology.

It is also in line with Euro­pean eco­nomic inter­ests. The AAs/​DCFTAs imple­men­ta­tion has already brought eco­nomic success and ben­e­fits for these coun­tries as well as for the EU. A full-fledged eco­nomic inte­gra­tion would expand the size of the EU’s Single market by 50 million con­sumers and provide oppor­tu­ni­ties to make best use of these coun­tries’ indus­trial poten­tial, natural resources, and human capital for strength­en­ing the EU.

Con­trary to some per­cep­tions, domes­tic public opinion in Germany might not be a big problem. Accord­ing to an opinion poll con­ducted in Sep­tem­ber 2020 by soci­o­log­i­cal agency Kantar Pro­files Divi­sion at the request of the Kyiv-based ‘New Europe’ Centre, 47% of Germans are already in favour of Ukraine’s mem­ber­ship in the EU (rising to 60.7% among those aged 18–25 years). More research is needed, but it seems that the German public do not per­ceive cit­i­zens of these coun­tries, who over the last years have enjoyed visa-free travel regime with the EU, as that distant in terms of culture or identity.

Thus, Euro­pean polit­i­cal, secu­rity, climate and eco­nomic inter­ests demand opening an EU mem­ber­ship per­spec­tive for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. It cor­re­sponds to the German inter­ests to strengthen the EU’s regional and global stand­ing and trans­for­ma­tive power.

For Germany specif­i­cally, it pro­vides an oppor­tu­nity for lead­er­ship in the EU — in shaping the vision of the future of Europe, to re-posi­tion itself as the driving motor of the EU and a con­sen­sus builder among the member states with dif­fer­ing views. This is also an oppor­tu­nity for Germany and the EU to con­tribute to rebuild­ing transat­lantic rela­tions, with the EU assum­ing more respon­si­bil­ity and invest­ment in Euro­pean sta­bil­ity on its most vul­ner­a­ble flank.


Dmytro Shulga is the Euro­pean Program Ini­tia­tive Direc­tor with the Inter­na­tional Renais­sance Foun­da­tion, Kyiv.

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