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Dr André Härtel

The path from candidate status to membership is very long

On 24 June, the European Council decided to grant Ukraine and Moldova the status of candidate countries. For Ukraine, which was previously part of the Eastern Partnership (EaP, since 2009) or the Neighbourhood Policy (ENP, since 2004), changing from the Union’s foreign to enlargement policy is a historic political success.

  • Ukraine
NL 165 | July 2022
Governance and Public Administration
International Trade and Regional Integration

This was only possible because a unique moral and geopolitical “window” had opened against the background of Russia’s invasion since 24 February. In the months since the application, the Ukrainian government and civil society have used this window with a professional campaign in Brussels and other European capitals. The candidate status, however, appears to be the maximum that is currently achievable for Ukraine. A successful start of accession negotiations requires a demanding package of accelerated reforms. This is a high hurdle given the country’s focus on the war and the slow reform pace during Zelenskyi’s presidency.

Security and politics

The decision to grant the candidate status has surprised many political observers in the EU and Ukraine. A “total war” (Zelenskyi) is taking place in Ukraine, making the country’s security the main focus of politics. However, the candidate status is not the key instrument to change that. The EU is not a security guarantee for its current members either and is an underdeveloped security policy actor as such. The question must be asked whether, against the background of the war, Ukraine can be expected to accelerate reforms and implement the accession requirements or whether Ukraine and the EU should better invest their efforts in arms supply diplomacy. Moreover, in the course of the last weeks, the Ukrainian government and the European Commission (EC) have given the impression that Ukraine is a reform-oriented “avant-garde”. This view contradicts the selective and postponing reform agenda of Ukrainian governments since around spring 2016.

Political implications: improved conditionality?

Ukraine is not a typical EU accession candidate. In terms of dimension, such enlargement would only be comparable to the “big bang” enlargement of 2004 or the accession negotiations with Turkey, which are on hold. Other candidate countries, such as North Macedonia, have been waiting for progress in the accession stages already for many years. These aspects have contributed significantly to enlargement fatigue, especially in the old member states.

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With Russia, there is a clear opponent of Ukraine’s inclusion in Western regional integration projects. Ukraine is also a “vulnerable” candidate, as infrastructural damage exceeds USD 100 bn already and it is not foreseeable how the territorial and political conditions after a peace deal will look like when Ukraine will begin with the accession negotiations. Usually, the key incentive of membership means improved leverage for the EU to support progressive elites and civil society to work on reforms. In the case of Ukraine, which is already economically very dependent on the EU, this might work out better than elsewhere. On the other hand, the geopolitical background of the status decision, President Zelenskyi`s now considerable national and international reputation, as well as the war and possible reconstruction as state priorities speak against this logic.

Economic implications: reconstruction

Although many companies such as ArcelorMittal have recently resumed their operations, economic output (about -30% in 2022) and tax revenues (-30% in March/April yoy) have collapsed sustainably – Ukraine will need billions in monthly fiscal support for the foreseeable future. As in 2014/15, the country’s economy is also undergoing lasting changes as a result of the war. Even if territories are reconquered, Ukraine will continue to deindustrialise and could lose large parts of its arable land. If the war continues into next year, many highly qualified people will not return. The accession process was not designed for challenges of this kind. The funds from the EU’s Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) (EUR 14.2 bn 2021-2027 for all candidates) are too small for this and earmarked differently. The candidate status is more important from another perspective: the EU has assumed joint responsibility for the survival of the Ukrainian economy and for its long-term convergence with EU countries. This calls on Brussels to play key role in budget support, short-term facilitation (e.g. customs), creative logistical solutions (e.g. grain exports) as well as in the design and implementation of reconstruction.

Policy priorities in the short- and medium-run

The Ukrainian leadership and civil society must understand that they have reached the maximum possible in terms of EU integration for the moment. The candidate status has raised the country to a plateau from which it cannot fall back for the time being. However, the road ahead will be very challenging, as an accelerated accession procedure is not foreseen in EU treaties and as the unity of the 27 member states seems to have been exhausted for the time being as far as Ukraine is concerned. Moreover, Ukraine has a war to win – a goal for which candidate status is of little help. The priorities for Kyiv’s short-term integration policy should therefore be the following:

• The Ukrainian government must do its utmost to protect the long-term reform agenda from the consequences of the war and to avoid a democratic “roll-back”. A negative example is the reform of the politicised, non-transparent and too powerful domestic intelligence service SBU, which was initiated only shortly before the invasion. According to the intention of some politicians, including those belonging to the presidential camp, the service should be further empowered;
• Furthermore, the government should swiftly implement the recommendations by the EC in its decision to grant the candidate status, although the timeframe given for this is probably too ambitious due to the war. It is recommended to concentrate particularly on decisively strengthening the independence of the newly created bodies and agencies after 2014 in the judiciary and especially in the anti-corruption sector;
• All Ukrainian stakeholders involved in the EU integration process should return to the pragmatic and sector-specific cooperation with the EU that has characterised the relationship since the conclusion of the Association Agreement in 2014. Though their use by Ukrainians is understable in the face of the invasion, moral and geopolitical arguments have been exhausted with the granting of the candidate status. The accession process is above all a technical-legal one that requires not only political will but also highly professional bureaucratic management and long-term thinking.

Summary and outlook

The candidate status granted to Ukraine is a breakthrough for the ambitious foreign policy of post-revolutionary Ukraine that had elevated future membership in the EU and NATO to constitutional rank in 2019. However, as the experience of the Western Balkan countries and Turkey shows, candidate status is not synonymous with a guaranteed start of accession talks or future membership. This is obvious in the Ukrainian case. The context of war and the Ukrainians’ existential fight for state sovereignity could, in the worst case, turn the candidate status into a Pyrrhic victory. Furthermore, the pro-Ukrainian position of EU publics in view of Russia`s unprovoked aggression and the pro-enlargement position of the EC have obscured important facts. Firstly, the reform process in Ukraine, which is crucial for future membership, had slowed down considerably before the invasion. Secondly, the EU accession process is above all a deliberately long-term technical-legal process, which instead of normative and geopolitical questions must above all keep the political and economic cohesion of the Union in mind.