Why Ukraine must get EU can­di­date status now – Lessons from Enlarge­ment Research

Foto: EST&OST /​​ Imago Images

EU research has shown that a cred­i­ble mem­ber­ship per­spec­tive is an effec­tive means of anchor­ing liberal democ­racy from the outside. That is why Ukraine must now be granted can­di­date status.

With his war of aggres­sion against Ukraine, Putin has not only destroyed the Euro­pean secu­rity and peace order; he has also attacked the liberal world order based on the sov­er­eign equal­ity of states, their ter­ri­to­r­ial integrity, and the peace­ful res­o­lu­tion of con­flicts between them. Research on enlarge­ment offers impor­tant lessons on what the Euro­pean Union (EU) can do to restore and strengthen the Euro­pean liberal order, with reper­cus­sions for global affairs: The EU must now cred­i­bly commit to mem­ber­ship for Ukraine (as well as Moldova and Georgia) by grant­ing can­di­date status. At the same time, the acces­sion process of the Western Balkans must be unblocked, since it under­mines the EU’s cred­i­bil­ity of commitments.

40 years of research on EU enlarge­ment (from Spain, Por­tu­gal, and Greece in the 1980s to Eastern enlarge­ment in the 2000s) has found that EU mem­ber­ship is a nec­es­sary con­di­tion to ensure that nation­al­ism and lib­er­al­ism go together (it is not suf­fi­cient, as the illib­eral back­lash in Poland and Hungary shows). Pres­i­dent Zelen­sky has suc­cess­fully con­structed Ukraine’s strug­gle for sur­vival around nation­al­ism and lib­er­al­ism. However, there is no natural alliance between aspi­ra­tions for national self-deter­mi­na­tion and indi­vid­ual freedom. Many coun­tries which cast off the yoke of foreign rule in the name of liberal democ­racy ulti­mately turned author­i­tar­ian, as many exam­ples from post-Soviet states have demon­strated. Here is where the EU comes in.

EU research has shown that a cred­i­ble mem­ber­ship per­spec­tive offered by a secu­rity com­mu­nity of democ­ra­cies is an effec­tive way to firmly anchor liberal democ­racy from the outside. Acces­sion con­di­tion­al­ity empow­ers liberal reform coali­tions vis-à-vis con­ser­v­a­tive nation­al­ists and author­i­tar­ian pop­ulists. It also pro­vides strong incen­tives for rent-seeking gov­ern­ments to deliver costly democ­racy and good gov­er­nance reforms. This is the success story of the EU’s south­ern enlarge­ment in the 1980s, as well as its eastern enlarge­ment in the 2000s. The blocked acces­sion of the Western Balkans further cor­rob­o­rates the impor­tance of a cred­i­ble mem­ber­ship per­spec­tive. Pro-Russian forces and rent-seeking gov­ern­ments are strength­ened where the EU fails to follow up on its com­mit­ment to membership.

These find­ings have several impli­ca­tions for the current debate on the can­di­date status for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. First, rather than using the Western Balkans as an argu­ment against, the EU should restore its cred­i­bil­ity by unblock­ing acces­sion nego­ti­a­tions with Mon­tene­gro and opening them with North­ern Mace­do­nia and Albania.

Second, grant­ing can­di­date status will empower pro-liberal reform coali­tions in Russia’s neigh­bour­ing coun­tries against Putin’s attempt to foster author­i­tar­ian nation­al­ism. A cred­i­ble mem­ber­ship per­spec­tive, democ­racy pro­mo­tion, and geopol­i­tics go together in this case.

Third, denying or delay­ing can­di­date status will severely under­mine the cred­i­bil­ity of the EU in its Eastern neigh­bour­hood. It was the EU that ini­ti­ated the acces­sion process after Ukraine had applied for imme­di­ate EU mem­ber­ship on Feb­ru­ary 28, the fifth day of Russia’s full-scale attack: The Euro­pean Par­lia­ment endorsed the appli­ca­tion a day later (March 1). Shortly after, the Euro­pean Council invited the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion to submit its opinion on Ukraine’s appli­ca­tion for mem­ber­ship (March 10–11). Another four weeks later (April 8), Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent von der Leyen handed over the ques­tion­naire for EU acces­sion to Ukrain­ian pres­i­dent Zelen­sky in Kyiv, and promised that forming an opinion on Ukraine’s suit­abil­ity to join would take only weeks rather than years. When Ukraine sub­mit­ted its answers to the ques­tion­naire in less than a month (April 19), the Com­mis­sion con­firmed that it would give its opinion very quickly. In its special meeting of the Euro­pean Council, the member states’ gov­ern­ments unan­i­mously acknowl­edged the prepa­ra­tion of the Commission’s opin­ions on the appli­ca­tion for EU mem­ber­ship of Ukraine and announced to revert to the matter at its June meeting (May 30).

If the Com­mis­sion deliv­ers a pos­i­tive opinion by mid-June, it is hard to see how the Euro­pean Council can delay or deny can­di­date status. The EU has entrapped itself into the acces­sion process. If member states felt that the ongoing war, the Western Balkans, or the EU’s need for reforms stood against can­di­date status, why encour­age Ukraine to take the nec­es­sary steps to begin with? Back­track­ing now by resort­ing to legal and tech­ni­cal argu­ments would under­mine the new-found western sol­i­dar­ity in the strug­gle against aggres­sive author­i­tar­ian nation­al­ism. It would also destroy the remain­ing trust post-Soviet coun­tries might still hold in the EU stand­ing up to Russian aggres­sion; only Georgia and Moldova sup­ported the UN’s res­o­lu­tion on Ukraine. Perhaps most impor­tantly, reneg­ing on its pre­vi­ous com­mit­ment, the EU would lose any cred­i­bil­ity it has left with current and poten­tial can­di­date coun­tries. Can­di­date status does not equal mem­ber­ship, and acces­sion is a long-running and open-ended process. There­fore, it is all the more impor­tant that coun­tries with a mem­ber­ship per­spec­tive can trust the EU’s com­mit­ment. Acces­sion con­di­tion­al­ity is the only tool the EU has that proved effec­tive in build­ing peace and pro­mot­ing democ­racy abroad. In order to be effec­tive, the EU has to deliver on its promises.

While the risks appear to be at best long-term, the oppor­tu­ni­ties of the can­di­date status are imme­di­ate. Grant­ing can­di­date status to Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia now, together with reviv­ing acces­sion nego­ti­a­tions with qual­i­fy­ing coun­tries in the Western Balkans, will restore the EU’s cred­i­ble com­mit­ment to liberal values with regard to its neigh­bours. More­over, it pro­vides the EU with a com­pre­hen­sive set of instru­ments to support pro-Western reform coali­tions in these coun­tries, making sure that nation­al­ism and lib­er­al­ism go together. A strong com­mit­ment to Ukrain­ian democ­racy also pro­vides the EU with new cred­i­bil­ity to get serious with its own members vio­lat­ing fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples, such as Poland and Hungary. Last not least, can­di­date status will send another pow­er­ful polit­i­cal signal, next to sanc­tions and weapons, that the West stands with Ukraine against Putin’s aggres­sion and that Euro­peans are willing to con­tribute their share to pre­serv­ing the liberal inter­na­tional order.


Tanja A. Börzel is pro­fes­sor of Euro­pean inte­gra­tion and speaker of the Cluster of Excel­lence “Con­tes­ta­tions of the Liberal Script” [SCRIPTS], Freie Uni­ver­sität Berlin. Thomas Risse is senior pro­fes­sor at SCRIPTS, and direc­tor of the Berlin Inter­na­tional Research College and Grad­u­ate Training.

 

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