Just because some Central European countries have backslided doesn’t mean that Ukraine will. The EU’s next steps are crucial.
In a speech at the Charles University in Prague in August 2022, German chancellor Olaf Scholz said that the EU should be ready to accept new members on its eastern flank, including Ukraine. For enlargement to happen, he signaled, the EU cannot ignore the question of its own reform.
On this, the chancellor is in broad agreement with France’s president Emmanuel Macron, while a number of leaders in Central and Eastern European and Nordic member states are highly sceptical of tampering with the EU’s founding treaties, especially now.
It is true that for Europe to be able to act as a geopolitical actor, the current model of decision-making, that demands unanimity, is impractical. And it will become more so if new member states join the Union. It is also true that for smaller member states, the current treaty’s provision on unanimity in decision making is a way to maintain some weight in the EU. Given this, it is unlikely that the reform of the EU, even in minimalist form – namely a qualified majority (instead of unanimity) on foreign policy and taxes – will take place in the next few years.
This, however, would be a bad reason to stall EU accession for candidate countries, especially those whose European choice has been made at the cost of major threats or aggression from an authoritarian neighbour – Russia. This is the case of both Ukraine and Moldova. But it is mainly Ukraine that finds itself at the intersection of two contrary trends in the EU: the imperative to act geopolitically in order to ensure that the European project survives, and the reluctance to enlarge due to fears of losing the liberal democratic core of this project.
The EU and its liberal democratic values
There are certainly practical reasons to view EU reform as a prerequisite for enlargement. For instance, the political balance in the European Parliament will surely be impacted by a large number of seats going to Ukraine based on its 40 million-plus population. Moreover, Ukraine’s massive agricultural sector would present a challenge for the long-unreformed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). However, none of these issues are insolvable in the medium term. Both the EU’s governance and CAP will need reforming. The issue of trust in Ukraine’s democratic future, however, needs to be addressed first – and free from irrational perceptions.
Concerns for preserving the EU’s liberal democratic values are justified in view of the cases of democratic backsliding in Hungary and partly in Poland. But the premise that candidate countries in the east are more likely to present such problems than “old” EU members no longer holds water in 2023. Political trends in France, Italy, and elsewhere show that illiberal parties also thrive in Western democracies. It is wrong to see a country’s ability to improve its commitment to human rights and the rule of law primarily as a matter of culture. Just look at the countries that managed to transform their governance, develop an independent judiciary, and raise the bar of preventing corruption. The Baltic countries, which joined the EU in 2004, for example, achieved this transformation. The cases of democratic backsliding that currently exist do not justify putting all cases of EU accession in one category and labelling them as potential failures. The key to improving a candidate country’s adherence to the rule of law is in the quality of governance.
The timeline for accession is crucial
Since signing the Association Agreement in 2014, Ukraine has launched a full-scale reform program. Many elements of this program have been largely implemented: reform of police, anti-corruption bodies, the banking sector, land management, and, not least, a reform of municipalities. This allows for a more democratic decentralized governance model. This does not mean that the bits remaining to be implemented can be taken for granted, or that crucial reforms like decentralization are irreversible. Once the war is over, there is still work to be done to secure the decentralized model of regional governance. In wartime, there’s been a very centralized approach to governing Ukraine, such as the partial exclusion of pro-European opposition parties from working with the government on reform, EU accession, and reconstruction agenda.
Nothing on Ukraine’s reformist to-do list, however, seems unattainable within three to five years, provided the war is over by then. This presents the EU with a clear task of ensuring that public support for Ukraine’s EU membership is still intact in years to come. The best way to do this is by fixing clear intermediate goals that will integrate Ukraine into European structures while it waits for political decisions on its full membership. Such intermediate goals may consist in offering Ukraine full access to the Four Freedoms (free movement of goods, people, services and capital including access to the single market) only when it completes chapters related to the rule of law and economic reforms. Another option for intermediate goals is a staged accession, giving a candidate country gradual access to the benefits of membership, including EU cohesion funds.
Surely, if this intermediate mechanism is adopted for one country, it should be valid also for other potential members, which would be good news for candidates in the Western Balkans. They should also benefit from changes reinvigorating the accession process, which has been stalled for years.
Rather than Ukraine and other candidates waiting until the EU completes its unfinished business of reform, Germany can help Ukraine to complete its own reform agenda – and offer it a clear timeline for accession. Since Germany is a key player in Europe, its standpoint can have a decisive role in ensuring that Ukraine’s European prospects are not stifled by political procrastination.
Marija Golubeva is a policy advisor and was a member of the Latvian Parliament (2018-2022) and Chair of the European Affairs Committee. She served as her country's Minister of Interior from 2021 to 2022, in which capacity she developed and implemented Latvia's response to the refugee crisis in Ukraine after the outbreak of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, and has furthered cooperation with Ukraine and Moldova in the Home Affairs sector.
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