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Ukraine’s membership of the EU is a long way off, but we must start preparing right now

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24th has changed not only our current understanding of European security, but also our thinking about the European Union and its place in the world. The belief that Europeans must play an important role in this unprecedented crisis offers a chance to reconsider some internal processes, including the policy of enlargement. This process has stagnated over the past decade. If strong enough political will is found, the Russian war against Ukraine could offer a concrete perspective on the country’s future within the European community.

June 22, 2022 - Fredrik Löjdquist Pavel Havlicek Pavlína Janebová Romain Le Quiniou Sofia Strive - Articles and Commentary

EU and Ukrainian flags in EU Council building during the EU-Ukraine Summit in 2020. Photo: Alexandros Michalidis / Shutterstock

Despite Russia’s ambitions to influence the future of Europe in places such as Ukraine, the final verdict on the continent will be made by Europeans themselves. During a summit on Thursday and Friday this week, the heads of the 27 EU member states will have the opportunity to show that they are the ones who will decide on the future of the Union.

The EU’s opportunity to respond positively to Ukraine’s application for candidate status and subsequently open accession talks should not be wasted. Any different answer would only send a bad signal to both Kyiv and Moscow, which are closely following developments regarding European unity and the will to follow European procedures. It is clear that Ukraine, the other Eastern Partnership countries (Georgia or Moldova), and the Western Balkans will not join the EU tomorrow. But they should be given a fair offer. This opportunity will allow these countries to carry out the necessary reforms that will bring them closer to the EU.

Ukraine as a country on the move

After 2014, Ukraine underwent a major political, social and security transformation and embarked on a reform process that brought it closer to the EU. This included the creation of a free and developed trade zone that simplified Ukraine’s exports to the EU. The country, which was practically on the verge of collapse at the time, has stabilised itself and significantly strengthened its resilience and security forces. Driven by its European ambitions, Ukraine has modernised the state’s operations. It also changed its constitution, which enshrined the country’s aspirations to join the EU and NATO in law as an unquestionable future orientation.

Reforms, such as decentralisation, the fight against corruption, changes in the judiciary system, and an energy shift away from an unpredictable and aggressive Russia, have in many ways inspired other countries in the region. Although Ukrainians still have a lot of work to do, their progress in democratisation, fundamental rights and freedoms, and social resilience is unprecedented given the circumstances and the undeclared war with Russia. In many ways, Ukraine is well on its way to building on this progress after the war – if Europeans support it.

It is clear that the Russian invasion interrupted many of these efforts and forced the Ukrainians to concentrate their forces, funds and all their society’s capacities on stopping the Russian aggression. We must resist attempts to eradicate anything Ukrainian. Together with the enormous loss of life, critical infrastructure and territory that has fallen into the hands of the Russians, at least for the time being, this war marks a turning point in Ukraine’s history. Only closer integration with the EU and NATO can stop Russia’s efforts to absorb Ukraine.

Ukraine as an opportunity for Europe

Today, Ukrainians are defending the European continent from Russian aggression. Every day they are paying with their lives to defend both their own country and common European values. In addition, Ukraine offers a number of other opportunities to strengthen Europe’s independence and defence against external threats. Today, the experiences of Ukrainians in the military field cannot be compared with any other events in the world. Europeans could learn from them after the war regarding ​​cyber-attacks, disinformation and other forms of hybrid aggression that Russia uses against the West.

Finding a compromise path for Ukraine’s integration into the European Single Market will undoubtedly be difficult. After all, the so-called “Eastern Enlargement” that brought countries such as the Czech Republic into the EU in 2004 faced various problems. However, the Ukrainian market, with a population of more than 40 million, offers significant opportunities for the EU’s export-oriented future. This is especially true when you consider the importance of the Ukrainian workforce to the economic sustainability of many countries in the CEE region today.

As the “Granary of Europe”, Ukraine supplies its agricultural wealth to a large part of the world. The EU could help export this agricultural production to the poorer parts of the world, which are now starving due to the Russian aggression. Significant opportunities in an interconnected world can be found in a number of other areas, from climate policy and energy to digitisation, transport and people-to-people contacts.

Ukraine’s integration with the EU will require considerable financial resources. If Ukraine gains a clear perspective on the future of the European community, the hundreds of billions of euros needed for post-war reconstruction could become more than a moral and symbolic boost. Indeed, it will be an investment in a future member state. This will become a strategic element regarding future cooperation in the EU-Ukraine partnership. This must be based on clearly defined European values ​​and conditionality in the area of ​​key reforms.

The Czech presidency of the European Union may also play a key role in this process. Prague’s role will be especially vital if the official decision on Ukraine’s candidate status is postponed from the end of June to a later date. The government will subsequently have to find consensus among the 27 members of the Union. Each of them will eventually have to express a clear position on this matter. The Czech Republic has spoken positively several times in the past on Ukraine’s integration and is actively promoting the beginning of its long journey to EU membership.

It is important to keep in mind that the granting of candidate status is intended only as the start of this process. It does not in itself represent any immediate boost to Ukraine’s accession prospects. After all, its potential integration is ultimately governed by measurable indicators and the state’s gradual incorporation of EU requirements. This process can last for many years, even with good political will on the part of the EU member states. The Czech Republic itself took one decade to prepare for accession between 1994 and 2004. This is something that Ukraine’s supporters, together with its political leadership, must emphasise in order to manage today’s unrealistic expectations. Much like in some countries in the Western Balkans, there is a risk that Eurosceptic sentiment will grow if progress is only gradual.

The EU accession process should be fairly based on a single starting position. So if Ukrainians want to rush into the EU, they will have to start working quickly on the homework that they have been neglecting for years. The EU’s task is to create the conditions and political will for this process. The Czech Republic and Sweden within the current presidency “Trio” will have privileged positions in this regard and can contribute to this in the coming months by taking a number of steps.

The shock that Europeans have been experiencing since February 24th in connection with the Russian invasion of Ukraine can be compared to the outbreak of the Second World War. This conflict first devastated much of Europe and its people, but later became a major impetus for the community that preceded today’s European Union: the most economically powerful group in the world. Today, we have a chance to enhance this cooperation in response to the Russian aggression. We, Czech, Swedish, French and other EU citizens, should not waste it.

Pavel Havlicek is Research Fellow of AMO. His research focus is on Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine and Russia, and the Eastern Partnership. He also deals with questions of strategic communication and disinformation as well as democratisation and civil society support. Pavel is a graduate of the two-year-long Erasmus Mundus International Master in Russian, Central and East European Studies hosted by the University of Glasgow and the EU Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. 

Pavlína Janebová is the AMO Research Director. She focuses on Czech foreign and European policy and Central European cooperation. Pavlína is a graduate of European Studies which she read at the Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, where she currently pursues a PhD degree in International Relations and European Politics. She has been working for AMO since the beginning of 2018.

Romain Le Quiniou is co-Founder and Managing Director of Euro Creative – a French think tank focusing specifically on Central and Eastern Europe. Romain is specialised in European security and defence issues with a strong emphasis on Central Europe and the Baltic Sea region. He is also particularly interested in the strengthening of relations between France and Central Europe.
Fredrik Löjdquist is the Director of the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS), an independent institute constituted and financed by the Swedish Government, with its organisational domicile at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. He is a former Swedish diplomat, with previous missions such as special envoy and ambassador for the Swedish Presidency of the EU in Georgia 2009, ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) 2012–2017, and most recently, Sweden’s first ambassador and special envoy for hybrid threats based in Stockholm 2018–2021.
Sofia Strive has many years of experience of working with the civil society in the Eastern European region. She has been the former co-chair of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum and been the coordinator of the “Swedish Civil Society Network for the Eastern Partnership and Russia” at ForumCiv where she has strengthened the connections and cooperation between civil society in Sweden, the EaP and Russia. She is currently supporting the Stockholm Center for Eastern Europe Studies to set up new projects and is also working at the Swedish gender equality organisation MÄN with coordinating their regional European network. 

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