Owhat a difference a war makes. Four months ago, the leaders of France, Germany and Italy would not have thought of supporting Ukraine’s bid for EU membership. But this Thursday, there they were in sunny Kyiv, all strongly approving. If next week’s European summit agrees, following the positive opinion just given by the European Commission, it really could be, as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said after meeting his visitors from the most fortunes of Europe, “one of the key European decisions of the first third of the 21st century”. It could mark the start of a new cycle of eastern enlargement of the EU, as important as the first major post-Cold War cycle in the 2000s, which in two waves carried countries ranging from Estonia to Bulgaria. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus marks once again: “War is the father of all things”.
There are two good reasons for accepting Ukraine as a candidate for EU membership: because Ukraine has earned it, and because it is in the long-term strategic interest of all Europeans. The second is even more important than the first.
Ukraine’s aspiration to join the EU is not new. I will never forget standing on a freezing Maidan in Kyiv during the Orange Revolution in 2004, amidst a sea of European flags the likes of which I have never seen in any EU capital. Ten years later, the 2014 protests in Kyiv were sparked by President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of an association agreement with the EU – and these protests were dubbed Euromaidan.
The war has confirmed this firm will of the Ukrainian nation. From the outset, Zelenskiy made applying for EU membership one of his top three demands on the west, alongside his urgent demand for more weapons and sanctions. A recent opinion poll conducted in the western and central regions of Ukraine – polls were impossible in the east because of the war – found 89% support for membership of the EU.
Who can doubt that Ukrainians are fighting and dying for Europe? Explaining the commission’s positive recommendation, a senior Brussels official said: “The commission does not forget that Ukraine is the only country in Europe where people have died, where people have been shot because they were in the street carrying EU flags. Now, we can’t tell them, ‘Sorry, guys, you were waving the wrong flags.’ »
But it is also a strategic choice for Europe as a whole. The problem is not only the second largest country in Europe. In addition to recommending that Ukraine be granted candidate status, “subject to” certain specific measures being taken, the committee proposes the same status for Moldova, which is sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, a member of the EU, “provided that” somewhat broader changes are made. It also recommended the opening of accession negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia. Beyond that will be the rest of the Western Balkans, Georgia and potentially, one day, a democratic Belarus.
Managed well, this second major enlargement to the East would make the European Union not only bigger but also more self-sufficient in food, stronger militarily and with more potential for economic growth. We Europeans would eventually be better able to defend our interests and our values as we sit precariously between a vengeful Russia, a rising China and a declining United States. This enlargement of the EU would also require further deepening, otherwise a community of 35 Member States would be dysfunctional. In the long term, the inclusion of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia would mean that Russia would finally have to come to terms with the loss of an empire – and begin to seek a role as a modern nation-state. (Britain shows how long this process can take.) So this second wave of eastern enlargement would be another big step towards a Europe whole and free.
Still, there are a lot of ifs and buts along the way. Countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Portugal are still trying to complicate, if not block, this very first step. Even if, as seems likely, the EU’s ‘big three’ – with Mario Draghi’s Italy taking the place vacated by Britain – prevail at next week’s EU summit, there will be there the political will to support a long-term enlargement strategy? The costs of reconstruction in Ukraine will be enormous. War damage is already estimated at $150bn (£122bn). Ukraine has a chance to build back better, but only if substantial EU funds for reconstruction are actually tied to major reforms, including the fight against corruption.
Currently, this step enjoys popular support within the EU: 66% of EU citizens approved of opening the door to Ukraine in a Eurobarometer survey in April. An average of 57% of respondents in 10 selected European countries did so in a recent poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). But the ECFR figures for France, Germany and Italy were just under 50%. As the wave of wartime sympathy with Ukraine wanes and all of Europe is hit by the economic consequences of the Covid pandemic and Vladimir Putin’s war, that support may erode. The Mediterranean countries say, “You keep talking about the East, but what about the South? Dire conditions in the Middle East and Africa, exacerbated by soaring food prices due to lack of Ukrainian and Russian grain exports, could lead to further crises there.
Another danger is that enlargement may continue without the necessary deepening. This was the big flaw of the first enlargement to the East. The result: Viktor Orbán demolished democracy in Hungary with the help of billions of euros in EU funds and, thanks to demands for unanimity on such issues, recently held the rest of the EU to ransom for a new series of sanctions against Russia.
More likely, the momentum for enlargement would wane. Ukraine and Moldova could find themselves in the limbo that much of the Western Balkans has endured for nearly two decades. North Macedonia has waited 17 years, since 2005, to move from candidate status to the actual negotiations, thanks to blockage first by Greece and then by Bulgaria. Macedonians kept the faith, but in Serbia support for EU membership fell from 70% to 37%. Local elites elsewhere might conclude that their best bet is to pit Europe, China and Russia against each other, as Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić is doing. The eastern and southeastern perimeter of the EU would then be an unstable mush, inviting the penetration of China, Russia and other hostile powers.
The road ahead is therefore strewn with pitfalls and possible detours. Yet, as the Chinese saying goes, a journey of 10,000 miles begins with one step. At least this first step is going in the right direction.