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Ukraine and the EU: scenarios of European integration

Many now talk about Ukraine’s potential membership of the European Union. However, there has been little discussion on how Kyiv could become a member state in a practical sense. A recent EU-funded event in the Ukrainian capital offered insight into the country’s prospects, ultimately laying out various positive, negative and middle of the road scenarios.

November 18, 2022 - Valerii Pekar - Analysis

Flags of the EU and Ukraine at the EU Council building in Brussels. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

European integration is a dream for Ukrainians and a geopolitical choice written into the country’s constitution. Hundreds of politicians, government officials and public activists work hard every day towards this goal. This year, despite the war, Ukraine made significant progress on the path to European integration, and the support of citizens for this idea reached a record high. In turn, the European Union provided unprecedented assistance to Ukraine in response to the war, including financial and humanitarian aid. For the first time in the history of the EU, it also financed the supply of lethal weapons to a country that was attacked, demonstrating that the tagline of the campaign “Together, we are Europe” has a practical dimension.

However, in the long term, the path to the European Union does not appear to be without difficulty. This process is associated with numerous challenges and looks to be neither easy nor quick. We all remember the history of the United Kingdom’s membership in the EU and the referendum on its subsequent withdrawal, the long wait for Turkey that ended in a reversal of the political course, the conflict between the European North and South on financial issues, and the present opportunism of some Eastern European countries. What will be the Ukrainian way? Will Ukraine be successful? Will it bring the expected benefits to both the EU and Ukraine?

The key factors and possible scenarios of Ukrainian-European integration were studied in detail at a strategic foresight event recently organised in Kyiv by the EU-funded CEU4U Project. Strategic foresight is a discipline forecasting social, economic and political developments with a long-term perspective, carried out by people who take direct responsibility for realising the best future scenario. As a producer and moderator at this event, I fully enjoyed the variety of opinions and challenges discussed at the meeting. The live workshop brought together a wide variety of representatives and experts, including those from government, parliament, think tanks and NGOs. Those in attendance included economists, sociologists, political scientists, lawyers, diplomats, cultural and media experts, ecologists, leaders of business communities, futurologists, and experts in energy, education and health care. The extensive report is available in Ukrainian. In this publication I shall briefly outline the main outcomes.

The year 2032 was chosen as the destination point of the study. By this point in a decade, all current processes should have led to certain results, and we will be able to see what Ukraine’s path to the European Union will be. Having outlined more than 90 diverse political, economic, social, cultural, technological, and environmental trends, among others, the foresight participants chose the three most important factors that will determine the future of Ukraine and its European choice. These are:

  • Capacity, independence, and stability of state institutions.
  • Efficient and fair justice aimed at protecting civil rights and freedoms.
  • Development of the private sector, building a “country of entrepreneurs”, which includes, in particular, full-scale privatisation, availability of concessions and leases of state property, successful private activity in the field of education and health care, etc.

These key trends are analogous to railway forks, which will determine where the Ukrainian train will turn on its way to Europe and at which station it will arrive in ten years. Since not all combinations of key paths are possible, a total of five scenarios were described, of which European integration was successful in one, failed in two, and was problematic in a further two. It is currently impossible to estimate the probabilities of the scenarios, but their boundaries, characteristics and development trajectories are clearly visible.

Only one of the scenarios (“We are the champions”) represents a successful European integration. Powerful institutions, developed justice, ensuring rights and freedoms and a developed private sector of the economy would lead Ukraine to the status of a full-fledged member of the European Union, which can fully benefit from the common market, acquis communautaire and the open movement of people, ideas, capital and goods. This is the most difficult scenario, as it requires the full implementation of reforms that are already on the agenda (some of them were included in the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement of 2014) or will appear during the EU accession process. First of all, we are talking about judicial reform and public administration reform, which are constantly delayed. An important success factor in this scenario is successful decentralisation, namely the ability of communities to plan, change, attract funds and implement projects. The prerequisite for this scenario is a successful post-war recovery and security guarantees for Ukraine. Economic freedom, inclusiveness and sustainability are constant principles on this path, and adult education, the development of business culture and effective communication of reforms to society will constantly accompany the process. The role of civil society is important, as it is responsible for advocacy and monitoring changes, and acts as a “bridge” between the Ukrainian state and the EU.

But this scenario is only one of five.

It makes sense to only briefly dwell on two unambiguously negative scenarios, because their risks are obvious. A strong state in the absence of justice and an underdeveloped private sphere leads us to an authoritarian scenario of “1984”. This is reminiscent of the USSR, where justice is controlled, society is apathetic, and the media is completely controlled by the government. The maximum concentration of power with no checks and balances, a fiscal crisis, censorship in the media, populism in politics and playing on the discontent of the masses are also part of this scenario. The slide to authoritarianism would be evolutionary, not sudden. The economy would fall sharply and the average life expectancy of the population would decrease. Key safeguards against such a scenario include the accelerated development of civil society, a free political process and freedom of speech. Judicial reform, entrepreneurship development, adult education and creating “red lines” for the digitisation of state services to prevent total control would also help make sure that this scenario does not happen.

Another negative scenario is formed in the case of institutional failure and a lack of justice. Even a developed private sector does not save us from this situation, so this scenario has been called “Haitianisation”, which is characterised by anarchy, gangsterism, and radicalisation. Excessive weakening of state institutions would lead to a “failed state” or “soft authoritarianism”.

These two negative scenarios are obvious, and civil society constantly fears them and monitors early signals to prevent them. Much more interesting are the two borderline “twilight” scenarios, when European integration may have taken place (or may have failed), but its consequences are highly questionable both for Ukraine and for Europe.

In the “Slay the Dragon and Become a Dragon” scenario, the capacity of state institutions and a developed private sector of the economy are combined with the absence of justice, civil rights and liberties. Here we are dealing with a small European-integrated semblance of Russia or China, and it is not obvious that the European Union would want to have such a member, except in the case of a purely formal approach to Ukrainian European integration as a prize for victory in the war. This is exactly the approach that a number of Ukrainian politicians call for from the European Union, proclaiming the slogan “first European integration, then [possibly] reforms”. If the Ukrainian and European political elites reach an agreement that EU membership will be a reward for victory, and not an assessment of well-done homework, then the formally implemented reforms and their formal assessment will lead us to this scenario. Social and economic polarisation, the appropriation of the victory and recovery process by the political elite, centralisation and media censorship, the restriction of political activity and freedom of speech, and the reduction of the role of the parliament await us in this situation. A safeguard against such a scenario is primarily the active role of civil society in a wide sense (including local leaders, business communities, army veteran communities, etc.) and its direct communication with the institutions of the European Union.

Another “twilight” scenario is the result of successful European integration with capable institutions and effective justice, but with limited private initiative. This scenario is called “Kindergarten” and currently is promoted by some influential Ukrainian politicians. The economy becomes extremely centralised and monopolised because of the increased role of the state (including state ownership of enterprises), increased regulation, the formation of new monopolists (loyal to the political leadership) and other restrictions on economic freedoms. European regulations are used in this situation to suppress entrepreneurial initiative, and European funds are directed primarily to social protection. The media are also monopolised, and private business leaves the country. Society is polarised, consisting of the political elite and socially protected paternalists, and the middle class is washed away, along with its demand for democracy and human rights. This story is reminiscent of Orbán’s regime in Hungary. Safeguards against such a scenario include the active role of private business communities and their interaction with other players. This includes civil society and EU institutions which should focus their attention on the development of mass entrepreneurship and free and fair competition in Ukraine.

Scenario analysis proves that the European integration of Ukraine will neither necessarily happen nor necessarily be successful. Therefore, the foresight event ended with the search for answers to the questions of what the Ukrainian state, civil society and European institutions should do to reach successful European integration. Also, the participants of the foresight researched the stereotypes in the mutual perceptions of Europeans and Ukrainians and tried to formulate the value of European integration for both sides: Ukraine and the European Union.

Summing up, I would like to note that a successful Ukraine is possible only if there is a combination of capable state institutions, effective and fair justice and a developed mass private initiative. Successful reform of the judicial system and public administration, decentralisation, and the increasing capacity of communities must be combined with the growth of economic freedom, civil society and free media. High-quality communication of reforms to society and the education of adults are necessary conditions for success. Direct communication between civil society, local self-government and business communities with the European institutions and their European peers (NGOs, businesses, communities, etc.) serves as a safeguard against slipping into the negative and “twilight” scenarios.

The most important thing here seems to be Europe’s perception of Ukraine as a problem or as an opportunity. This means that Ukraine’s path to the European Union is a two-way street. The EU must recognise and articulate the value that Ukraine’s accession creates for it, and not just in the role of a mentor waiting for Ukraine to complete its “homework”, but rather move together with Ukraine into a new, better reality.

For high quality, mutual benefits to come from the European integration of Ukraine, EU institutions must maintain dialogue not only with the Ukrainian state, but also with civil society (which in Ukrainian conditions often is not only a “watch dog”, but also a “sledge dog”). EU institutions must also develop direct peer-to-peer relations at various levels (including between cities and regions, business communities, cultural institutions, think tanks and universities, etc.), develop educational programmes, and strengthen synergy between donor projects. And of course, the EU must demand real adherence to the membership criteria. It should not reward Ukraine’s victory while reforms remain unimplemented. The rule of law and the development of democracy in Ukraine should be the highest priorities in the European-Ukrainian dialogue to prevent the aforementioned negative scenarios.

Concrete, practical steps can be very effective, such as adding the Ukrainian language to EU web portals to increase the availability of information, introducing Ukrainian Studies in universities and pursuing various exchange programmes. The country should also be involved with regional economic development agencies as part of EU economic development programmes.

The value of European integration for Ukraine is obvious, but what value does Ukraine bring to the European home? This not only includes Ukraine’s educated and hardworking people, natural resources and large market. Ukraine will bring to the EU modern digital solutions for the public and banking sectors, a lot of service innovations, and can become a “regulatory sandbox” (testing ground) for new ideas. Ukraine will contribute to a renewed feeling of inspiration and security, help overcome the destructive influence of Russian propaganda, and give impetus to the rethinking of values in culture. And, of course, Ukraine will play an important role in the European security system, add expertise in strengthening the bloc’s military potential, and also become an interface for communication with the peoples of the Caucasus, Central Asia, etc.

The participants of the foresight described today’s Ukraine using the ideal of “Leukocytes of Freedom”, as the Ukrainian experience of fighting against autocracy for freedom will help to protect European societies from the pathogens of autocracy, strengthening the immunity of the democratic world. Then, the European future can be described using the concept of “Reinventing Europe”, or “Renaissance 2.0”, as Ukrainians can tactfully propose renewal in areas that are outdated or do not work in the European home. The mutual recognition of experience will lead to the formation of a new reality in which only the best institutional, legal, technological and creative solutions will exist. This is an idealistic but possible and desirable scenario.

Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, the author of four books, an adjunct professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council.


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