By granting Ukraine (and the Republic of Moldova) Candidate Status, the EU-27, at a European Council Meeting declared historic by President Charles Michel, shifted the policy gears: from neighbourhood to enlargement. This collective consent – to invite new housemates that up to now did not have the realistic opportunity to one day move in – has the potential to make the EU stronger. The outcome depends on the political will of Brussels and the current and potentially new member states.

Clearly, the European house needs renovation. This has nothing to do with its neighbours, let alone with Ukraine or the tiny Republic of Moldova. If at all, the neighbourhood gets to feel the global winds of change in a more challenging world order earlier and with less insulation, while the EU is, of course, exposed just the same.

The potential new housemates might not only be thought of as problematic and burdensome, but as enrichments, too, with relevant experience in the face of military and hybrid aggression from which older member states can learn some lessons in defense and deterrence, but also in changing and adapting quickly under pressure and energizing as societies in difficult times.

It is regrettable that Serbia and North Macedonia, along with Albania and Montenegro candidate countries themselves, do not seem to see it this way.

Granting Ukraine this status deserves to be viewed from a broader perspective. The EU must face the rivalry of systems to uphold our liberal system of democracy. This is the moment for the “geopolitical” commission to take a clear side in the defining conflict of our time – especially in the face of Vladimir Putin’s claim that Ukraine was not a real country.

For a resilient shift in strategy – Potential new members and the EU must deliver

Clearly, Ukraine (and Moldova) only qualified for admission to the marathon of accession procedures. The EU-27 decision is not a guarantee of membership. It is nevertheless more than a symbolic step because the Association Agreements between the EU and both countries explicitly do not provide for the goal of membership.

Instead of contemplating whether Ukraine would have received “candidate status” without Russia’s large-scale war of aggression and the Ukrainians’ brave defense, the war itself should not only be considered the tipping point for public opinion but, first and foremost, the starting point for inspirational and bold leadership – in Brussels and in current and potentially in future member states’ capitals as well.

Clearly, there will be no fast-track membership just because of the war. The marathon has only just begun. If candidate status was received in record time, this is because Ukrainians worked day and night through the ample catalogue of questions handed out by the European Commission, accomplishing the usual procedures even during a war, without exemption from the rules.

Competition is healthy, as it was prior to the large accession round in 2004

The Ukrainian (and Moldovan) status must not be seen as exclusive. Depending on what you make of it, it is also an opportunity for the Western Balkan states, who have been in the accession loop for a long time, to grasp and use the Ukrainian example as an impetus to move on with their own tasks.

The pitfalls of the accession procedure are well known. In the end, there will be yet another Commission opinion and another decision of all EU member states after the many in-between approvals required repeatedly during the process. But any observer is well-advised to not only look at Turkey (which, by the way, still applied the death penalty when being given candidate status in 1999) but also at the outstanding journey Croatians took from the ashes of war to full integration into the Eurozone. And Bulgaria’s current spat with North Macedonia just demonstrates why it is necessary to reform EU voting rights.

Much is possible in a generation’s time

Croatia’s journey from candidate status to membership took ten years. In its favorable opinion regarding candidate status for Ukraine, the Commission reiterated the seven main overhauls needed in Ukraine’s judicial system and government, amongst them guaranteeing an independent judiciary, weeding-out high-level corruption and limiting the power of oligarchs.

The demands are not new but are in the general terms laid down by the Copenhagen Criteria from 1993, encompassing a political, an economic, and an acquis part. While all chapters of the acquis may be considered already open, given the progress Ukraine made under the Association Agreement and within the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, the political and economic criteria are the more difficult benchmarks.

The rule of law and the anti-corruption challenge is undeniable in Ukraine. At the same time, there is a level of institutional stability that holds up even during war times and provides a basis for democracy and the rule of law, respect for human rights and protection of minorities.

The five bodies of the anti-corruption eco-system established after the Revolution of Dignity continue to target large-scale corruption despite being disturbed by (some) old structures in the judiciary, the prosecutor general’s office, and Ukraine’s security service SBU. Such cases of obstruction of law enforcement or justice are made public by non-governmental organizations and independent journalists in Ukraine. The transparency they provide is the basis for achieving accountability. To deliver the latter demands more time since institutions that prosecute and charge corruption offenses must uphold rule-of-law standards for their part.

The conflicts between the pro-reform staff of newly established anti-corruption institutions and old forces in some notorious courts, the prosecutor’s office, or the security service SBU, however serious, should not stand in the way of candidate status as long as there is pluralism and predominantly democratic changes of government – and the overall situation with respect to politics and administration continues to improve, as has been the case since 2014.

For Ukraine: How to prove credibility and avoid setbacks in anti-corruption

In relation to Turkey, the EU-Commission stated in its recommendation to start accession procedures in 2004 that the “irreversibility of the reform process, its implementation” would have to be “confirmed” over a longer period. Ukraine will only make it across the marathon’s finish line if its reform-minded professionals can keep up their work and not be themselves targets of anti-reform forces (including during the war.)

Ukraine’s political leaders can prove that they are serious about EU integration by protecting and supporting them, as well as Ukraine’s specialized anti-corruption agencies, and at a minimum, not hindering the implementation of control mechanisms for the distribution of humanitarian aid and reconstruction money.

They must ensure that the chosen candidate for Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor is appointed without further delay and the selection procedure for a new head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau is carried out swiftly.

For the EU, one aim is to improve the accession process

While the accession marathon takes place, EU improvement must happen in parallel. The core idea remains gradual integration – merit-based. Proposals there are plenty, for instance, complementary staged integration and partnerships for enlargement, or targeting deeper economic integration especially and focusing on how the successful example from Central and Eastern EU member states can be replicated in the Western Balkans.

Depending on a candidate country implementing reforms, multi-staged accession could lead from policy dialogue to observer status, to participation in EU institutions (the Council or the European Parliament) with speaking, but not voting rights, to selected and, finally, full voting rights.

… and another, to become capable of action

An overlap with voting rights reform would allow dealing with the challenge of national vetoes and make the EU fit for foreign policy decision-making. To abolish the unanimity principle is so old a demand that it is almost embarrassing – and there is no explanation why majority voting should be more difficult for under 35 than under 15.

As every family of four knows, decision-making is not less complicated in smaller settings. Crucial is the understanding that only by being united and forward-looking can the EU member states be equal in strength to more powerful global actors – on whose goodwill it is not sensible to count.

The European Council meanwhile adopted its first conclusions on ”Wider Europe” considering a “European political community.” The aim is a platform for political coordination with countries in Europe, addressing issues of common interest to strengthen security, stability and prosperity in Europe.

Solidarity at stake vis-à-vis Ukraine

The Ukrainian people must no longer feel “at the fence of Metternich’s garden” (as the Ukrainian intellectual Mykola Riabchuk once formulated). This is crucial because they are the most important driver of Ukraine’s future.

This is not only about the 91% (of surveyed Ukrainians) who support Ukraine’s potential accession to the EU, but about a country defending precisely the European values enshrined in the Maastricht treaty.

It is these citizens the EU must bolster while being firm with Ukraine’s political establishment. Professionals working hands-on and forward-looking in politics, civil society and the expert community are the prerequisite to fill with life the many platforms created since 2014 and make use of control structures to impact politics and state executive decisions.

How the war transforms Ukrainian politics

It is hard to predict whether a 2014-like positive impetus will arise if Ukraine wins this war Russia has imposed and whether Ukrainian society will be energized and able to stand up against the regressive role of corrupt individuals. People’s strength, after all, has been strained since 2014. Ukraine’s citizens are mobilizing tremendous resources to resist Russia’s attack. Analog to after the Revolution of Dignity, it is to be expected that war veterans and volunteers will have considerable influence and shape any future political agenda, from inside and outside of government.

The question of where Volodymyr Zelenskyy stands is thus not that critical. He may opt for responsibility, as when he stayed in Kyiv to face the Russian assault. At present, he has the chance to win a presidential election without oligarchic backing. At the same time, the Ukrainian people would vote him out of office if he and his team were not to deliver in the fight against corruption – as they did with his predecessor Poroshenko.

Candidate status is adequate, honoring Ukraine’s achievements since 2014

While candidate status is clearly not a fast track to membership, it is the impetus and lever for Ukraine to move forward with the clear perspective to be welcomed as a full member in the European Union, founded on the aims and values of peace, freedom, justice and solidarity.

Ukrainians deserve the real opportunity to fulfill Ukraine’s potential as a democracy with strong institutions, which in turn are a prerequisite for an economy worthy of foreign investment. The clear commitment to Ukraine’s path to accession is the EU’s appropriate message and action vis-à-vis reform-minded Ukrainian citizens of Europe – with the whole of Europe benefitting when Ukraine fulfills its potential. The EU and Ukraine, Europe’s largest country by land mass and fourth by population, are inextricably linked in determining Europe’s future in the changing global order.

About the author

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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