Drop the excuses and embrace Ukraine

Ukraine’s resilience in the face of Russia’s renewed onslaught has raised questions about what terms they should consider in any eventual peace deal. President Volodymr Zelenskyy’s concession[↗] last week that Ukraine may well not join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is probably realistic, but also regrettable, as it shows the hollowness of the Euro-Atlantic democracies’ past promises.

Zelenskyy’s team have, however, been adamant that they will not give up[↗] on their country’s bid for European Union (EU) membership. They rightly see joining the bloc as a key aspect of securing a brighter future for Ukraine. It would give the hope of rescuing something positive from the suffering inflicted on Ukrainians. Some may see it as a reward for their heroic stand against authoritarianism, but including Ukraine would also be in the EU’s own interest[↗] as it seeks to define its particular contribution[↗] to European security.

Kyiv is committed to joining the bloc, but the question now is whether the EU and its member states can summon the collective political will to do the right thing, meet the moment, and recognise Ukraine’s candidacy for membership.

Despite some positive signs, it is not certain that they will. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, upended two decades of EU policy with a firm endorsement[↗] of a membership perspective for Ukraine on 27th February, asserting[↗] that: ‘they are one of us and we want them in.’ 

Ukraine’s formal application for candidacy immediately attracted support[↗] from the bloc’s Central and East European members. Yet uniform backing was not forthcoming. Italy offered a verbal endorsement but France and the Netherlands, long hostile[↗] to further EU enlargement, gave no sign of changing that stance even in these exceptional circumstances. Germany[↗] remained scrupulously hesitant.

On 11th March, European leaders meeting in Versailles declined[↗] to approve Ukraine’s candidacy for EU membership. Despite repeated pledges to ‘#StandwithUkraine’, and the blue and yellow light shows across the continent, Ukrainians could be forgiven for wondering if they have reached the limits of what is, in reality, ‘solidarity-lite’.

Yet Versailles was not the end of the line. EU leaders referred the decision to the European Commission to pass a ‘technical’ opinion on the request for candidacy, even though the decision remains political. With Ukraine’s future membership likely to feature in any possible peace settlement, EU leaders will soon find the ball back in their court.

Before it gets there, and to make the political decision easier, it is important to understand and refute the arguments – and the excuses – that have been mobilised against recognising Ukraine’s candidacy for membership. 

Refuting arguments against, resisting ‘reflexive control’

A common argument against Ukraine joining the bloc is that it is not helpful to discuss EU membership, a long-term issue, in the midst of a crisis. For example, Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, who is among the vanguard of EU leaders providing weapons to Ukraine, asserted[↗] ‘we’re not going to help Ukraine that way’ and argued[↗] instead for a focus on ‘practical support’.

No reasonable observer would deny that Ukraine requires weapons and other aid. Yet if Zelenskyy, who also has some rather pressing concerns to deal with and a fair idea of Ukraine’s needs, includes membership among his priorities and can make time for it, then so too can EU leaders. 

Another objection is that many Europeans fear recognising Ukraine’s candidacy makes escalation of the current conflict, even as far as nuclear war, more likely. This horrific but remote possibility tends to obscure the vanishingly low probability that it would happen – especially as a result of recognising Ukraine’s candidacy. 

Some may point out that Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, used the 2013 EU Accession Agreement[↗] with Ukraine as an excuse (not to be confused with a reason) to lash out. Yet this happened before the EU and its member states started directly arming Ukrainians to better enable them to kill Russian invaders, a significant increase in direct antagonism.

In today’s radically changed situation, recognising Ukraine’s EU candidacy would certainly not please the Kremlin, but nor would it risk becoming a pen stroke heard around the world. We should also understand that spreading fear of taking even such obviously reasonable steps is part of Putin’s strategy of ‘reflexive control[↗]’ which is aimed at getting the Euro-Atlantic democracies to limit their own possibilities for action.

There is a more valid argument to be made against immediate Ukrainian membership of the EU. President Zelenskyy has called for[↗] this – although likely as a negotiating tactic. Some Western Europeans may worry – and some Ukrainians may hope – that immediate membership would lead the EU to become directly involved in the war militarily. This reflects a misplaced faith, on both parts, in the EU’s ‘Mutual Defence Clause[↗]’, which remains aspirational rather than genuinely credible.

The majority of Ukrainians know that, for them and other Europeans, the question of who can and will do the defending in Europe has been answered by the current conflict – and it is not the EU. Moreover, this is actually a non-issue given that immediate membership is absolutely not on the cards. Most Ukrainians know that too, but support from their partners matters most in their hour of need.

Unlike NATO membership, which is about mutual defence, EU membership is about a better life and a brighter future. Being in the EU thus has to mean something definitively better than what Ukrainians have had before. They know this would not come through a mere declaration that, like the wave of a magic wand, would change their country at a stroke, but rather through the hard work required to meet the ‘European standards’ that EU membership requires across the spectrum of governance.

Excuses, not reasons

Recognising candidacy does not, of course, mean instant membership, yet the two are often conflated by opponents of Ukraine’s EU perspective. This conflation becomes particularly pernicious when it is used to argue that Ukrainian membership is not ‘realistic’ – and therefore we should avoid raising false hopes by granting the latter when we have no intention of honouring the former.

As various experts[↗] have noted, this is disingenuous because it is self-referential. Membership would only be unrealistic if EU leaders refuse to grant it – despite Ukraine doing the hard work to meet the bloc’s requirements.

This rejectionism is often justified by reference to voters’ concerns and the supposedly ‘toxic’ nature of enlargement for Western Europeans. Beyond lingering chauvinism or ‘xenophobia[↗]’ towards Central and Eastern Europe, famously seen in previous hostility to the ‘Polish plumber[↗]’ that played a role in French and Dutch voters rejection of the EU Constitution in 2005, it is hard to understand what drives this supposed toxicity.

It is true that Dutch voters rejected[↗] an enhanced ‘association’ package for Ukraine (far short of membership or candidacy) in 2016, even after 196 of their citizens had been murdered[↗] by Putin’s cronies in the country’s eastern occupied territories. More recently in Germany[↗], there have been occasional dog whistle references to Ukrainians’ ‘excessive’ or ‘hyper’ nationalism that supposedly conflicts with EU values. Yet, if EU membership is incompatible with nationalism, someone better tell the citoyens of France who, like people across Europe and around the world, still[↗] cleave strongly to their nationhood.

Moreover, in the febrile atmosphere since the threat of conflict exploded into war, attitudes are shifting fast. Many Europeans now recognise that we owe a debt to Ukrainians and think it should be paid, in part, with a membership perspective. A poll[↗] conducted across a thousand adults in each of France, Italy, Germany, and Poland from 3rd to 7th March (but only released after the Versailles meeting) showed that 71% supported Ukraine’s bid. Even in France, 62% were in favour.

While von der Leyen may have been criticised[↗] in some quarters for raising unrealistic expectations, she seems to have better read the European public’s mood than some of her fellow leaders. Some may object that this support may not last, others that in practice Ukraine would not be able to make the reforms needed to meet EU standards, rendering this goodwill moot.

In reality, this is another flimsy excuse. The European Commission is responsible for overseeing accession processes. Its president, like the Central European leaders whose countries went through those processes two decades ago, understands the practical realities this entails. Unlike Ukraine’s current ‘partner’ status, candidacy would give both parties a strong incentive to ensure that the necessary reforms are really made. The EU cannot afford a member that doesn’t meet its ‘European standards’ and Ukraine is eager to learn how to do so.

European values, the EU’s value and Britain’s role

This learning process, however, is not a one-way street: Ukraine’s current struggle has a lot to teach current EU members about European values[↗] and how to defend them. Ukrainians know that the road to membership will be long. For now, as Petr Fiala, the Czech Prime Minister, argued[↗], Ukrainians mainly need to know that they belong. EU leaders should provide that assurance – and make their most telling contribution to European security – by seizing the moment and endorsing Ukraine’s candidacy.

Non-EU states have a role to play here as well. It was long suspected that the United Kingdom (UK) supported widening the EU to prevent itself getting sucked into a deeper Union. Brexit definitively dispels that motive here. The UK should use its influence with key allies like the Netherlands – and, if possible, Germany and France – to encourage them to overcome their objections to Ukraine’s EU candidacy. At the same time, British actors should not be afraid to acknowledge both the value of and conviction behind Ukraine’s EU aspirations. Rallying other countries that support Ukraine’s struggle for freedom behind this cause is a worthy way to give meaningful substance to the aspirations of ‘Global Britain’.

Dr Benjamin Tallis is a Practice Fellow at the Hertie School’s Centre for International Security in Berlin, Germany.

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1 thought on “Drop the excuses and embrace Ukraine”

  1. This is an emotive article. But sense and sensibility are not the same thing. There is precedent in sending a welcoming political message, of course – the European Community’s early acceptance of Spain, Portugal and Greece showed how and why. There is even precedent in accepting a divided country into the EU – even if the Cypriot example was one that EU leaders vowed never to repeat. There is clear precedent in post-conflict countries acceding – Croatia most recently.

    But to take on the problems inherent in a country actually in the midst of conflict?! That is something entirely untested. And that’s why it remains sensible for national political leaders who understand the tensions within the EU to remain practical first and foremost.

    Ukraine’s opportunity will come. But right now, the priority is survival – the survival of Ukraine, of course. But equally, the integrity of the European Union.

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