In parallel with military support to defend itself against the Russian war of aggression, a forward-looking debate is needed on how the EU should respond to Ukraine’s liberation and emancipation from a strategic perspective.

The EU should leverage its economic power and interconnectivity

Even if geopolitical thinking has found its way into relevant speeches and decisions, the EU is not a global military power and will not be for the foreseeable future. It is, however, an economic and political powerhouse and has considerable opportunities to impact its neighbourhood. To turn these into a responsible enlargement policy, the EU should leverage the interconnectivity vis-à-vis candidate countries for reforms.

This holds true for Ukraine in particular. The two paths, reconstruction and recovery on the one hand and becoming a full-fledged EU member on the other, emerged in parallel as urgent responses to Russia’s war. Only four days after Russia’s large-scale invasion, President Zelensky signed Ukraine’s application for membership.

It was clear from the beginning that this was an act due to the war. Russia’s invasion ended an old ambiguity between neighborhood and accession policies and accelerated the realization, on the part of the EU, that it needs to claim its role in a hostile geopolitical setting and defend its core values formally enshrined in the Treaty on European Union.

In June 2022, the European Council, in what the European Commission’s President herself called a historic decision in extraordinary times, granted Ukraine candidate status. But after a first wave of encouraging Ukraine’s EU candidacy in 2022, 2023 started with the tendency to temper the Ukrainian nation’s expectations.

Lacking so far: A clear strategy for Ukraine’s membership

Declarations of continued solidarity and the understanding that Ukraine belongs to the “European family” – as well as the justified reference to the fact that Ukraine is currently not ready for accession and the EU is not fit for enlargement – are neither sufficient nor effective.

For a year now, Ukraine has not only been engaged in a war that threatens its very existence; it is defending everything that democratic Europe stands for – and thus nothing less than the viability and future of the European integration project.

Moreover, restoring the destruction Russia is causing in Ukraine requires massive resources. Ukraine is Europe’s largest country if one counts all land mass entirely within Europe. Ukraine’s population, despite negative demographic trends and the deadly consequences of war, is more than twice that of the six Western Balkan countries combined.

Hence, Ukraine’s economic viability is of concern for all of Europe, not the least for budgetary reasons. To set the right course, immediate and post-war reconstruction, is, too. Equally important is to consider the consequences of the war on the social fabric in Ukraine and how crucial the European perspective is for many Ukrainians. For those de facto and emotionally at the frontline of the war, EU membership is not just a silver lining on the horizon but the only tangible chance for a good future.

Thus, EU integration and the reconstruction of Ukraine must be closely intertwined – to coordinate, control and ensure the efficient, transparent, and targeted use of the massive resources required to rebuild and recover (over USD 400 bln in foreign aid, not including military and defense spending).

The 27 governments who will ultimately decide on the pace, the negotiating framework and the modalities of the enlargement process as well as finally on the EU’s capacity to absorb new members, should keep this in mind. A democratic, prosperous and stable Ukrainian nation is in the EU’s own interest.

The war as an imperative for EU reforms

This is the time to dissolve the old tension between EU enlargement and its own need for reform – to be fit for further integration. The war brings the opportunity to tackle weaknesses and flaws in the EU’s set-up and policies, to reconcile the old debate of “widening” versus “deepening.” For example, extending qualified majority voting (QMV) has been a regular recommendation for a long time.

Arguably, it would be a prerequisite for the EU’s ability to act in an enlarged setting (recall that eight countries currently have official EU candidate status). Particularly those governments that have turned a deaf ear to the warnings of some Eastern European states (and Ukraine) about Russia deliberately destroying spaces of freedom bear a special responsibility here to advance reforms.

Ukraine, G7, EU and US cooperate on governing reconstruction

After three recovery conferences in 2022, the first one in July in Lugano hosted by Switzerland and Ukraine, the second one hosted by the German G7 presidency and the EU Commission in October in Berlin, and the third one in December in Paris, hosted by France and Ukraine, the G7 took charge of recovery planning with an agreement on governing a Multi-agency Ukraine Donor Coordination Platform.

With the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan in addition to the EU and its members Germany, France, and Italy, the informal grouping of seven of the world’s advanced economies brings additional sway to generate funds predictably and to attract other actors of financial might, like Switzerland and Norway.

G7 political involvement is foreseen during the World Bank/IMF Spring Meetings and the next reconstruction and recovery conference (URC2023), hosted by Ukraine and the UK. Both are crucial because Ukraine’s budget deficit remains a key problem – 10 billion USD for 2023, according to the first steering committee meeting of this donor platform.

EU integration is the rationale but a complex challenge

While we witness multilateral achievements generating and managing funds reliably, the accession process remains a tricky undertaking. The European Council might have given up its preference on consolidation of the “three c consensus” on enlargement of 2006, but strict and fair conditionality remains in place.

So, as is true for every candidate, Ukraine is subject to the Copenhagen criteria. As for the “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities” (the so-called political criteria), Ukraine is a young democracy and especially its justice system is still a flawed one. However, one cannot help but put on the other side of the scale the pictures of ordinary women and men walking up to invading tanks and asking their Russian drivers to please leave their country.

There is a connect between this resolve and Ukraine’s largely successful decentralization reforms. Similarly, the degree to which state institutions are still functioning in the middle of a war, including the anti-corruption institutions established in 2014, calls for recognition. As do, and most importantly, the interest ordinary Ukrainian people take in shaping Ukraine’s politics and state institutions. Overall, while by no means perfect, today’s state structures have improved considerably in comparison to 2013.

The disruption the war causes brings opportunity and risks at the same time; for example, oligarchs previously running wide-reaching TV channels have seen their assets shrink, which may be a window of opportunity to curtail their impact. But a framework to ensure the further development of pre-war pluralism is not a given, neither in media nor in politics.

Ukraine’s western partners must be prepared to intervene up to the highest level. A well-respected “Mr. or Mrs. Marshall” at the top of the multi-agency donor coordination platform might make a difference here. The personal engagement of respected Western politicians in applying conditionality did push for crucial reforms in the past.

While there is rightly concern about endless accession negotiations, before they can be opened, the EU institutions must still assess whether Ukraine has fulfilled the seven steps the Commission set out in its opinion on Ukraine’s membership application. The latest 24th EU-Ukraine Summit statement opting for the word “efforts” over “progress” is a hint of hesitancy.

The challenge of establishing the rule of law and fighting corruption

Ukraine’s ability to respond adequately to graft and corruption is the overriding concern for its supporters in both reconstruction and EU integration. Systemic corruption is a prevalent feature in most post-communist countries.

Remarkable for Ukraine is that forces from within have, since its independence in 1991, fought the structural power and networks of oligarchs. President Zelensky’s pre-war record of tackling the rule of law and anti-corruption is mixed at best. But then he surprised us with his resolve in standing up to Russia’s invasion, too.

Crucially, Ukrainian pro-reform politicians, activists, experts and journalists bring to light considerable flaws and challenges. Thus, it is by no means new but remains true that: while Ukraine is full of reform-oriented, capable people, these forces rely on the EU as a reform anchor as well as on both the EU and the IMF to apply strict conditionality to level the playing field vis-à-vis powerful actors defending old turfs.

Nudging Ukraine towards the EU’s standards for fighting corruption, ensuring the rule of law and the separation of power as well as developing a functioning liberal democracy obliges the resilient encouragement of membership and an outlook anchored in clear terms and conditions. This, in turn, requires Western leadership beyond the technocratic approach.

Having to fight a large-scale war both enhances corruption risks and binds forces to fight corruption. It also reduces people’s tolerance for corruption. Any Ukrainian government will be held accountable in the case of weakening its own defense through corruption, disturbing the just distribution of humanitarian aid or efficient reconstruction and recovery.

The multi-agency donor platform, if it uses its potential to ensure good governance well, could set the course for private sector engagement (hindered by the named deficits, but also a lack of war insurance). Close cooperation between the EU and the IMF recalls the period after the revolution of dignity when their joint support proved crucial for the Ukrainian government developing – and implementing – a reform agenda. Moreover, it holds the prospective for a full-fledged IMF program later in 2023 to help Ukraine close its remaining budget gap.

The economic and acquis criteria – more than just first steps already made

Becoming a functioning market economy and being able to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the EU is the other great challenge for Ukraine. However, here too, as with the political criterion, Ukraine can build on past achievements. The 2014 Association Agreement led to a way deeper integration into the EU’s internal markets than, for example, the Stabilization and Association Agreements with the Western Balkans.

The EU-Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) took effect in 2016. Beyond the reduction of tariffs and non-tariff barriers, this includes the gradual adoption of the Four Freedoms and sectoral cooperation. After the onset of the war, the EU also adopted a regulation allowing for temporary full trade liberalization and the suspension of trade defence measures for one year.

Regarding the acquis criterion, Ukraine has already adopted large parts of the EU’s primary and secondary legislation.  The official screening process in the run-up to the accession negotiations focuses on concrete benchmarks and their achievement.

Pragmatic measures in-between: Using economic integration strategically

Since the actual state of play and progress of the past are no guarantee for swift proceedings, Ukrainian think-tankers proposed defining a concrete interim goal. Particularly, entering the single market prior to full accession could break the “widening” vs. “deepening” impasse – as it would not only allow Ukraine a significant growth in GDP but would also epitomize the EU’s political reliability. Including the full four freedoms would provide for a relevant test case for more differentiated EU integration strategies ahead of full-fledged EU membership with all voting rights.

Similar benefits could be achieved by promoting industrial partnerships for the development of green energy or incentives for near-shoring of production facilities for EU companies. Other practical measures of a similar kind could take place in the fields of finance, technology, infrastructure, and in the labor market. However, what they all have in common is that they presuppose peace and stability as necessary.  Russia remains, in any case – and with it, the primacy of security.

Communication – Eastward expansion of consciousness?

The third „c“ of the enlargement consensus stands for “communication,” which actually means keeping the people on board, old and prospective EU citizens. “A free Europe is unthinkable without a free Ukraine.” The strong communicator Zelensky got to the point when visiting Brussels in February 2023, only his second trip abroad since the war began.

Messages sent out must not lead to disappointment about an accession process that drags on too long. Especially where there are tensions between pro-reform political newcomers and an established political elite fearing for their own power curtailment. There is a danger that the EU could be blamed as not reliable in its accession pledges.

Vladimir Putin is ready for a long war of attrition following only his own logic. Those who want to shorten the war have the option, in addition to arming Ukraine for its defence, of demonstrating that they will not make their own goal – Ukraine’s admission to the peace and prosperity project, EU – dependent on Russia’s willingness to interfere.

Overall, the history of the European enlargement and unification process holds several positive examples of how the Community has contributed decisively not only to economic development but also to the political stabilization of fledgling democracies (i.e., the southern enlargement to include Greece, Portugal and Spain). To paraphrase the historian Karl Schlögel, there is no doubt that the Ukrainian cause and that of the Europeans are just. We should do all to ensure that it will also succeed.

About the author

Miriam Kosmehl has been Senior Expert Eastern Europe with the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s “Europe’s Future” Program since 2017. From Berlin, she works primarily on the Eastern Partnership region, since 2022 with a particular focus on the strategic management of global interdependence.

Read more about our position on Ukraine as a European nation

The Stakes are High: How the EU and Ukraine Have the Chance to Determine the Future of Europe Together

Putin’s War and the EU’s Response – How European Member States have united to help Refugees

VIRTUAL CONFERENCE: Putin’s War against Ukraine – A Discussion on the Economic Implications for Europe