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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