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Commentary

Ukraine’s EU membership candidate status: in search of the win-win modality

on 23.06.2022

Ukraine is frozen in anticipation of the European Council decision of its candidate status preceded by the European Commission recommendation. If the candidacy is granted it can be perceived as a victory in Ukraine with full readiness to move further to the membership perspective that will be stipulated by the reforms the state has to implement.

Another option, perceived in some European capitals as a win-win formula, involves a conditional approximation between the EU and Ukraine right now with an applicant-for-candidacy status in the end. This option can be perceived in Ukraine, requiring legal commitment and not political promises, as a lost perspective and a neglection of the price Ukrainians paid for their freedom heavily associated with the EU choice the nation made.

Main arguments of Ukrainians, arguing for granting the status at all the levels and platforms are the following: candidate status is not a membership; Ukraine realizes the scope of reforms that should be implemented between candidate status and membership; Ukraine’s progress on the way of implementing the provisions of the Association Agreement with the EU is 63% with the 9-10% annual increment that proves the country’s capability to reform; Ukraine needs this political signal for the nation to unite around the perspective and pursue a merit-based approach to support sacrifices in the name of future accession; the legally enshrined status should be granted at the war time to signal Russia that the EU ultimately supports Ukraine’s choice and is ready to compete for it. A nation incentivised in this way will be a strong watchdog for the actions of authorities on the path to further reforms.

Answering the concerns of several EU states claiming Ukraine does not fully comply with the institutional resilience, democracy, rule of law and human right protection referring to Western Balkans progress − Kyiv argues the EU should follow its own conclusions and reward those proving progress in reforms without bundling Ukraine and Western Balkan states each of whom has different level and scope of progress. Kyiv also reminds that Ukraine complies with the Copenhagen criteria far more than some candidate states did at the moment of receiving the status.

While 71% of the EU population believe that Ukraine is part of the “European family”, the EU governments are exhibiting divergent approaches. One group of states with a lukewarm position requires adherence to technocratic approach with all of the procedures on the accession way to be held to. Another group is ready to step aside and think out-of-the-box and to abide itself by a more geopolitical and cultural approach. Geopolitical – to show that the EU is a strong actor, committed to the struggle of those who want to be part of the Union. This approach is also about inclusion of those states from the shared neighbourhood area whom Russia tries to exploit for undermining EU resilience and unity. Cultural approach assumes recognition of Ukraine’s belonging to European civilization.

Central and Eastern European member states have been outspoken supporters for Ukraine’s EU candidacy status and for good reasons. Historical experiences of their own have shown them that without proper protection—value-based, economic and security related—those in the vicinity of Russia are never safe, always threatened. CEE countries have felt first-hand the EU candidacy hurdles, the long and gruelling process leading to eventual accession. But the region has also seen the immense benefits of the process and its ultimate price—a membership.

Win-win modality is easy to see with granting to Ukraine EU candidacy status. Politically the EU gains credibility as an unified global actor, that bases its activities on rule-based international order, while the Ukrainian citizens have a tangible incentive to keep on fighting towards a clear goal of future peace, stability and prosperity.

Economically, while the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement in combination with the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine have moved Ukraine much closer to the European market, candidacy status brings not only new incentives but new mechanisms for convergence. Opening eventually not only EU’s market to Ukraine but as the war exposed, securing essential deliveries of grains and raw materials to the EU in addition to the overall benefit of larger open internal market.

Strategically, Ukraine receives a binding support from the EU removing doubts of return into some kind of a Russian ‘sphere of influence’. The EU would be triggered to be an active participant in the building of a new European security architecture and in building a new strategy toward Russia—long overdue for some CEE governments.

Culturally and value-based, while EU candidacy for Ukraine solidifies its belonging to the European civilization, it also assures clear path towards the adoption of the EU’s values, through laws and through citizen’s feeling of belonging. The EU is winning a willing follower, one that endures great sacrifices already in the name of democracy and free choice.

91% of Ukrainians support joining the EU. If their hopes are dashed and the candidate status is postponed from granting, Russia will perceive it as a signal of EU’s weakness and lack of unity as well as EU’s unwillingness to consider Ukraine as a part of Europe outside the Russia’s sphere of influence. This will leave Ukraine in limbo with millions of disincentivised Ukrainians for whom EU affiliation is an integral part of the cultural code.