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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