The EU will be stronger with Ukraine as a member

Ukraine’s official membership negotiations with the EU began on 25 June. It is a significant moral boost for a country that continues to fight for its survival amid Russia’s full-scale invasion. The war also threatens the EU’s security, reinforcing the relevance of security and defence considerations, making enlargement a geopolitical necessity.

The road to membership is neither easy nor quick. The fact that Ukraine starts negotiations under war conditions makes this journey even more difficult. The rise of the far-right in several EU member states further adds to the challenge, potentially impacting support for enlargement and Ukraine more generally.

Kyiv must implement wide-ranging reforms in thirty-five separate areas to align the country’s laws and regulations with EU legislation. Yet, Ukraine is not starting from scratch. In addition to carrying out reform to meet the criteria to open the accession negotiations, Ukraine has been implementing an Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU since 2014, which has approximated Ukraine with EU legislation in many areas. Furthermore, implementing the DCFTA has significantly facilitated bilateral trade and sectoral integration into the EU’s economy.

While the political will of Ukraine’s government is key to carrying out and implementing reform, civil society also plays a crucial role. Ukraine has a strong civil society that has been a powerful driver and accelerator of reform. Not only by advocating EU-related reforms, monitoring and watchdogging the Ukrainian authorities but also by providing expert support and increasing the institutional capacity of the government sector.

Added value for the EU

While Ukraine is a big country to absorb, its membership brings important economic benefits for the EU. It also strengthens European security and stability and enhances the EU’s weight as a geostrategic/global actor.

It could be particularly advantageous in EU efforts to boost its economic security and reduce EU dependencies in strategic industries such as food, energy, metals and critical raw materials, as well as in defence. Ukraine’s agricultural sector would also allow the EU to strengthen its role as a guarantor of global food security. Ukraine’s accession could also help modernise and further open up the country’s energy potential, and facilitate Europe’s transition to renewable energy sources. Ukraine could also contribute to diversifying EU trade routes and become a new transport hub within the European-Asian transport corridors.

It will also benefit European security and strengthen its geopolitical clout. Beyond enhancing defence and deterrence on the Eastern flank, Ukraine will optimise the EU’s foreign, security and defence policies. Already aligned with the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), Kyiv contributes to the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) Missions. Ukraine’s battle-hardened army is one of the best in Europe. Furthermore, its growing defence industrial capacity, and expert knowledge on drone and cyber warfare, bring real added value to the EU.

Hard work ahead

Still, Ukraine has a lot of homework to do. As the EU’s revised enlargement methodology provides for a much stronger focus on the fundamental reforms in the accession negotiations, Kyiv’s progress on the fundamentals cluster will determine the overall pace of the negotiations. This includes the rule of law, fundamental rights, the strengthening of democratic institutions and public administration reform. Fulfilling economic criteria will also be challenging for Ukraine due to the impacts of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Meanwhile, EU-aligned reconstruction and modernisation, as well as gradual economic integration into the EU’s single market, will be a priority. The EU also has homework. Further enlargement necessitates an adjustment of institutions and internal decision-making processes to prepare for the accession of new member states. While widening and deepening have always taken place together, member states have failed to reach a consensus on the scope and the legal form of these changes. However, adhering to the geopolitical imperative of enlargement for European security and stability and the need to present a credible enlargement strategy after years of stagnation, forging ahead must be prioritised even if it requires the EU to continue muddling through – at least for the time being.

Source: EPC