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