When it comes to Ukrainian membership of the EU, the war has exposed the bloc’s failed balancing act between its neighborhood and accession policies and exacerbated the economic quandary of full integration. A clear strategy towards Ukrainian membership will require the EU to revisit its fundamental core, namely the protection of its values in an increasingly dangerous and polarized world.

Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion has inspired awe and mounting horror in equal proportion among fellow Europeans. Political leaders and commentators alike quickly accepted Ukraine’s depiction of its defense against Russia as a defense of precisely those European values formally enshrined in the Treaty on European Union (TEU) – namely “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.”

Often dismissed as purely symbolic, witnessing in real-time how Ukrainians are risking life and limb against an autocratic, quasi-totalitarian opponent has reminded the EU of the significance of the core proclamation that lies at its heart.

Invoking common values for the purpose of orientation is in line with broader, ethics-laden rhetoric emerging from Brussels in a range of fields. The realization has finally sunken in on the part of the EU that it needs to find its place in a more challenging geopolitical setting and defend it more actively and creatively.

The EU and its member states in a new world: bold posturing and uncertainty alike

The overwhelming feeling of a “Zeitenwende” (or” turning point in history”), to use Olaf Scholz’s term of two weeks ago, is so present that Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, responsible for driving forward the EU’s agenda, initially struck a hopeful tone regarding EU membership for Ukraine, quickly stating that Ukraine “is one of us and we want them in.”

Incidentally, this apparent commitment came on the same day that Germany agreed to send lethal weapons to the war zone in the center of Europe, a historic policy shift demonstrating how quickly fundamental attitudes can change in the face of dramatic events.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked the EU to allow Ukraine to gain “immediate” membership under a “new special procedure,” prompting jubilation from several member countries – notably Eastern European ones – as well as full-on applause from the European Parliament (EP).

Yet Charles Michel, representing the unanimity-bound European Council of the EU heads of state and government, promptly calmed the waters with a reminder that Ukraine’s membership aspirations may be “legitimate” but remain largely “symbolic.”

At last week’s informal EU summit in Versailles, no mention was made of Ukrainian membership per se, with European leaders pledging instead to “further strengthen our bonds and deepen our partnership to support Ukraine in pursuing its European path,” adding, “Ukraine belongs to our European family.” A more careful reading of the EP’s resolution following the invasion reveals that Ukraine’s move towards membership should occur along the lines of “working towards granting candidate status,” with the ultimate decision to be made “on merit.”

At any rate, admission is mainly a matter for the member states, while the European Commission’s initial assessment will be on a technical basis. Some observers spoke of depressing signals that Europe has still not recognized the urgent need to defend what it stands for. At the very least, they must be interpreted as EU leaders treading cautiously.

Insistence on EU internal reform: a prerequisite for Ukraine’s membership or reticence to cope with reality?

This caution is based on a range of long-standing objections to further EU enlargement before a fundamental reform of the EU itself. And on concerns regarding speed and process – full membership, after all, means introducing 70.000 pages of acquis communitaire (EU legislative norms, rules, and technical standards) on the part of Ukraine.

Critics of Ukrainian membership point out that neither side is prepared and warn of the EU’s policies being compromised and actions grounding to a dangerous halt in the event of another member with questionable quality of governance joining the bloc.

The EU is already struggling to live up to its ambition of acquiring more global weight, and when unanimity is required, as in the fields of foreign and security policy, the un-reformed EU is often unable to put forth a common position. Indeed, the same applies to some fields where unanimity is not required (though desired), such as asylum policy.

This was illustrated by the Syrian “refugee crisis” in 2015, which exposed the structural deficiencies of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) and the lack of political will to overcome different attitudes in European capitals to help asylum seekers and refugees.

The question, however, is whether the EU can afford to put off meeting challenges that are increasingly urgent by merely pointing to the need for internal reforms. The question is also whether the member states possess the ability to act determinedly to adapt procedural rules originally intended for more normal circumstances.

The quid pro quo logic of the Association Agreement – anchor for reform or unsurmountable barrier?

The essence of the EU’s approach in its partnership with Ukraine in the period before the war centered around the EU-Ukrainian Association Agreement (AA), complemented by a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). Ukraine, under this arrangement, is obliged to adopt and implement the acquis in exchange for commitments on the part of the EU to integrate Ukraine into its internal market.

Progress has been mixed, since sustainably adopting and implementing the acquis poses considerable challenges. An additional challenge will lie in factoring in provisions of the European Green Deal in the context of Ukraine’s economic integration into the EU market.

The pre-war way of handling differing expectations on the part of the EU and Ukraine regarding the final aim of the costly and strenuous reforms has been to kick the can down the road, vaguely settling on the possibility of Ukrainian membership a decade from now.

European ambiguity over its links with Ukraine

Russia’s invasion has arguably put one part of the debate to rest: the geopolitical dimension of EU ambiguity must surely be settled. Yet the economic dimension of European equivocalness remains unchanged and, in a disturbing twist of fate, is extenuated as Ukraine is further ravaged as a result of Russia’s assault.

Pre-war data from Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI), which measures countries’ progress towards democracy and market economies, ranks Ukraine 1st in the field of 10 likely EU membership contenders when it comes to socio-economic development (placing it ahead even of EU member Bulgaria), and 4th when it comes to both economic and political transformation. At the same time, Ukraine ranks only 7th when it comes to progress on the rule of law and indeed 9th regarding organization of the market and competition.

BTI’s analysts conclude that the rule of law, judicial reform, and anti-corruption policy remain Ukraine’s weak points, and without a “depoliticization” of institutions, it will be difficult to push back vested interests and state capture. These weak points naturally have an impact on the economic sector, for instance when it comes to privatization, foreign direct investment, security of property rights, or public procurement.

At the same time, BTI data demonstrates clearly that the Association Agreement and the approximation towards EU standards was and remains the decisive pull factor for almost all progress and positive developments as measured by the index – especially in the area of ​​decentralization (leading to good governance of local governments and administrations), but also in reforms of the banking system, digitization, and ecological sustainability.

Moreover, the strength of Ukraine’s civil society forces is a crucial factor and may be even more relevant in the long-term than Ukraine’s level of economic development or flaws of its current political system.

Multi-staged accession could be the way forward

In the face of the dramatic events on the ground, attitudes across the EU and of the political elite are shifting as we write, prioritizing the bigger picture over mere technicalities. But even before the invasion, new pathways towards membership on the part of non-EU countries have been touted. For instance, the idea of a multi-staged accession through “sectoral integration,” which in effect means forming a partnership somewhere between Association Agreements and full membership, could now gain traction, especially if intended as stepping-stones towards the latter.

One example can be found in “Continental Partnerships”, which initially curtail freedom of movement but offer observer status to EU institutions on the part of third countries, a model designed to help “low-income countries… gain substantial resources to foster institutional and economic convergence, with access to the resources contingent on their making sufficient progress towards this objective”.

Whichever creative new model emerges, if Ukraine’s current sacrifice and demonstrated ability to act with determination in defending European values against Russian aggression is brought to the negotiating table, its position is likely to be significantly stronger than before.

A major rethink on the part of the EU required – and a clear signal to Ukraine

The Russian invasion, then, has inadvertently resolved one strategic dilemma on the part of the EU but initially exacerbated another, with a clear resolution not yet in place. A new, stronger narrative of the EU as a fundamentally value-oriented project, embedding security and economics within it and thus superseding the age-old dichotomy of whether the EU is a political or economic project, would be a useful starting point.

Future debates will then be concerned with weaving these ambitions together coherently. Article 49 of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU), which governs membership matters, states that “…any European State which respects the values referred to in Article 2 and is committed to promoting them may apply to become a member of the Union.

Bearing in mind that Mr. Putin’s true fear is the twin approach of democracy and an open society, not NATO missiles and tanks, a return to the true meaning of Article 2 TEU should underpin the European way forward with a clear commitment to Ukraine’s candidate status. As it stands, Ukraine is bearing that heavy burden alone as it waits for the EU to shift into a new gear. The EU should cross the already illogical line between enlargement and neighborhood policy and declare in unison that Ukraine’s future naturally lies in the EU.


Special thanks to Sabine Donner of the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) for additional analysis, drawing on the recently published 2022 Index.

About the Authors:

Jake Benford works on Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe Programme, currently focussing on innovation and technology. He previously developed the foundation’s work on impact investing. 

Miriam Kosmehl has been Senior Expert in the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe’s Future Program since 2017 working on the Eastern Partnership region from Berlin. 

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