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Ukraine’s possible EU accession and its consequences

360 degrees, 22.07.2022 Forschungsgebiete

The European Council has granted Ukraine candidate status. Despite political momentum, the road into the EU will be long and arduous. What challenges do the EU and Ukraine face in preparing for accession and eventual admission? This 360 Degrees was coordinated by Nicolai von Ondarza.

The EU and the second large-scale Eastern enlargement – déjà vu and innovations

By granting candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, the European Council (EC) has opened the door for the second large-scale enlargement to the East. Adding in the six countries of the Western Balkans and Georgia, the 27 EU states in Brussels have set out the markers for an EU-36. It was the war alone that led the EU to open up the perspective of membership to the Associated Trio so quickly. Under the portents of a destroyed European security order, fundamental questions about integration policy are returning with renewed vehemence. In the style of Agenda 2000, the EU should develop an “Agenda 2030” in which it sets out its strategic considerations for enlargement and the accompanying internal reforms.

With the prospect of an EU-36, the EC reactivated the term “Wider Europe”. At the time of the eastward enlargement of 2004, the EU included under this title the Eastern European neighbours for whom the then Commission President Prodi proclaimed: “Everything but institutions!” Proposals that outline the intermediate stages or provisional solutions for the long road to membership deal with this central idea and its problems. All concepts want to create pathways for rapid sectoral integration (e.g. slimmed-down internal market, energy supply). It remains controversial whether and for how long the increasingly closely associated countries should be treated as third countries or be given graduated participation rights in EU bodies and policies. The EC is taking up Macron’s vague idea of a European Political Community for all European countries with which the EU has close relations. It is reminiscent of the unproductive initiative for a Europe Conference of 1998/2001.

Whenever the 27 decide to open accession negotiations with Ukraine, they will also establish a negotiating framework. In it, the Council could dovetail the accession negotiations with the ongoing association process and, optionally, with a new intermediate format. This also concerns the various instruments of these pre-accession processes, including substantial financial assistance, which needs to be adapted to the contexts of war, conflict, and reconstruction. As with the Western Balkan countries, the “fundamentals” (rule of law, independent judiciary, fight against corruption, institutional stability) will be major obstacles to accession, as will the de-oligarchisation of the economy. The security implications are also precarious, as Ukraine will not become a NATO member for the foreseeable future, and the EU cannot assist it militarily in its current state. These issues will have to be resolved not in accession negotiations, but in other formats.

Ukrainian accession also requires reform of EU institutions

Ukraine’s EU accession, like any other, would have an impact on EU institutions. Given the size of the country – in terms of population before the war, it would be the fifth-largest in the Union and the largest new member since the 1980s – the effects would be particularly severe. This raises issues such as reforming decision-making procedures and institutional absorption capacity.

Like any other member state, Ukraine would be given a veto right in the Council of the EU as well as in the European Council in the case of unanimity. Procedures would not be complicated significantly with one additional state. However, if more new members are added – for example from the Western Balkans – the need to extend majority voting would increase. With qualified majority voting, a Council decision must be approved by 55 per cent of the member states representing at least 65 per cent of the EU population. Ukraine would get about 9 per cent of the votes, which is about the same as Poland’s voting weight today. At the same time, the voting shares of other member states would decrease – that of Germany, for example, from 18.6 to about 16.9 per cent. Together, Poland and Ukraine would then have about the same voting weight as Germany.

In the European Parliament (EP), the seats per member state are not distributed strictly mathematically, but negotiated according to the principle of degressive proportionality. Ukraine would be placed between Poland (52 seats) and Spain (59). In this respect, its MEPs could influence the balance of power in the EP. Moreover, this would lead to the EP exceeding its Treaty limit of 751 MEPs. Therefore, either the EP would have to be enlarged and/or the number of seats for MEPs from other EU states would have to be reduced proportionally. Using the EP seats vacated by Brexit to introduce transnational lists – as recently proposed by the EP – would also no longer be viable without a change in seat distribution.

Last but not least, Ukraine would be entitled to proportional positions in the EU Commission as well as in all other EU institutions. However, the functioning of the EU Commission in particular would be jeopardised if the EU were to adhere to the principle of one commissioner per member state. By the time Ukraine joins, at the latest, the EU should therefore also adapt its institutional foundations – with an expansion of majority decisions, an adjustment of the distribution of seats in the EP, and a reduction in the size of the EU Commission.

Ukraine’s accession to the EU: Relations with member states and implications for the balance of power

In case of accession, Ukraine’s closest partners in the EU would probably continue to be Poland and the Baltic states, as well as other countries in East-Central and South-East Europe. With continual threat perceptions, comparable experiences, and similar views of Russia, Ukraine would strengthen the group of member states calling for a tough stance vis-à-vis Moscow. Poland would be a key partner for Ukraine. Relations with Warsaw are likely to strengthen further in the coming years, for instance through a new bilateral agreement that might be a sort of Élysée Treaty of the East. Kyiv will also continue to deepen its relationships with those EU countries that see themselves as frontline states of the West.

Ukraine would enter the EU with a clear pro-American stance and would bring its profound security, defence, and military ties with the United States (and the United Kingdom), built up during the war, into the Union. This would strengthen the transatlantic “club” in the EU. At the same time, given its non-NATO membership, Ukraine would have an interest in the further development of solidarity and safeguard clauses as well as military capabilities within the framework of the Common Security and Defence Policy and in improving EU-NATO cooperation.

With regard to the future of the EU, competing goals of Kyiv can be assumed. On the one hand, Ukraine aims to join the EU because it wants “more Europe”. A dilution of European integration is not in its interest, as it would undermine financial and political solidarity. On the other hand, a state fighting for its independence in war will be reluctant to allow sovereignty to be “pooled”. Ukraine would also likely be reluctant to accept differentiated forms of integration, fearing that it would be left out of many projects (as in the case of the Eurozone, of which it would not be a member for a long time).

Overall, Ukraine’s accession would increase political and socio-economic heterogeneity, which could not simply be eliminated through treaty changes. A new “eastern flank of the EU” – enhanced by its close ties with the United States – would have more weight compared to the member states from the south of the Union, and the formative power of the Franco-German tandem would diminish. Germany would therefore have to invest more in securing the unity of the EU. Germany would have an opportunity if Ukraine were to join the Union, as it is a country that would support the Community’s efforts to enhance its security effectiveness and resilience.

EU candidate status from Ukraine’s perspective

Before Russia’s invasion on 24 February, Ukraine’s EU policy was characterised by two long-lasting trends. First, the conclusion of the Association Agreement in 2014 led to a “pragmatisation” of the EU discourse, which had long been dominated by symbolic-normative debates about future membership. The post-revolutionary political elites – the majority of whom are now clearly pro-European – but also a more professional civil society subsequently worked primarily on deeper sectoral integration with the EU. At the same time, surveys testified to the widespread realisation among Ukrainians that membership was a distant prospect. A second trend was the growing criticism of the EU by the Ukrainian leadership, which, despite the country’s reform successes after 2014, did not want to seriously consider proposals for upgrading the Eastern Partnership format. Most recently, the “Associated Trio” project has been received with reluctance in Brussels.

With the invasion, the context changed permanently. Ukraine found itself in a new role as a forward post in a defensive fight of democratic Europe against Russian imperial aggression. This opened a moral and geopolitical “window of opportunity” for Ukraine. Kyiv’s argumentation for rapid accession to the Union was now again, as before 2014, primarily strongly normative. From President Zelensky’s point of view, the granting of candidate status is only “just” since the Ukrainian people are risking their existence for European “values and rights”. Questions about the status of judicial reforms or the fight against corruption, on the other hand, were described by Ukrainian government representatives as inadmissible “micro-arguments”.

At the same time, a new confidence of Kyiv vis-à-vis the EU is noticeable. Ukraine’s representatives see their country on an equal footing with the large EU states and present themselves as regional vanguards and assertive reformers when it comes to implementing the Association Agreement. Ukrainian civil society, on the other hand, stresses the importance of candidate status for new reform momentum. In recent months, the government and civil society have waged a professional and well-coordinated campaign for candidate status within the EU. The Eastern Partnership, on the other hand, has served its purpose in Kyiv’s view. Ukraine will only invest in a realignment or new formats if they yield tangible security dividends.

The impact of Ukraine’s accession on the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)

Ukraine’s integration into the operational and armaments dimension of the CSDP could happen comparatively quickly. The Framework Participation Agreement regulates Ukraine’s involvement in CSDP operations. The country has participated in them since the early 2000s as well as the EU Battlegroups. Since 2015, an administrative arrangement with the European Defence Agency has governed bilateral relations and offered Kyiv the opportunity to participate in its military technology projects and programmes. In October 2021, EU member states recognised Ukraine’s wish to participate in Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) projects.

Notwithstanding this integration, the inclusion of EU member Ukraine into the CSDP would have to go hand in hand with a geostrategic repositioning, a realignment of EU-NATO relations, and an expansion of EU capabilities to counter cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns. After Ukraine’s accession, the EU will have another direct border with Russia. Moreover, its external border will not be congruent with that of NATO.

To deter Russia and its strategic intimidation and direct threats, the EU would have to significantly increase its duty of assistance. Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty currently states that in the event of an armed attack on the territory of a member state, the other member states must provide it with all the assistance and aid in their power.

As long as the EU aligns itself with its core task – international crisis management – NATO would have to assure it of its readiness to guarantee conventional protection and security to EU member Ukraine. Ukraine’s armed forces are likely to be unable to take on this task in the long term. Even before the Russian war of aggression began, they were insufficiently organised. Since 2014, the EU has been supporting Kyiv to build sustainable, accountable, and efficient civilian security services through the Advisory Mission Ukraine (EUAM). In January 2022, the Council approved €31 million from the European Peace Facility to strengthen the capacity of the Ukrainian army in the areas of medicine, technology, mobility and logistics, and cyber defence over the next three years. It is also looking into helping Ukraine with professional military training.

Finally, EU states would have to encourage the Commission to significantly expand the joint development of cyber, hybrid, and disinformation capabilities and provide the necessary financial leeway to do so.

Agriculture: Customary long-term accession model possible after improvement of competitive structure

Agricultural negotiations are among the most protracted in any accession process: They are directly linked to budget issues, and thus to the distribution of funds within a new member state and between new and old members. Agricultural expenditure accounts for 30 per cent of the EU budget and is a deciding factor in determining net contributor and beneficiary positions.

The arrangement of EU agricultural subsidies, which are largely paid as direct payments per hectare, determines budget returns. In Ukraine, in addition to small private farms, there are also large state-owned enterprises and, especially, agricultural holding companies with farms significantly larger than 1,000 ha in size. A transfer of the current type of direct payments would lead to large individual and total transfers to Ukraine. However, administrative structures based on the EU model would first have to be established for the processing and payment of these subsidies.

Past enlargements not only show conflicts but also offer possible solutions: Before the 2004 eastward enlargement, the old EU member states worried about their agricultural budget inflows. Conversely, large accession candidates such as Poland fought for high levels of agricultural support. After a Franco-German agreement, the future agricultural budget was capped and new members had to undergo a 10-year phasing-in process until they could match the same level of agricultural payments. For Ukraine, a longer phasing-in period is also conceivable. The deciding factor will be whether it can maintain its competitiveness despite the war, or whether it will have to rely on special agricultural reconstruction aid. Another prerequisite for accession is the completion of the land market reform initiated before the war to ensure transparency and procedural justice in land purchases and ownership. This would curb corruption and also protect smaller units from large-scale land acquisitions. At the same time, however, economies of scale of large farms should not be prevented altogether.

The alignment of food standards – also important for integration into the internal market – is already advanced due to various trade regulations in force. As a WTO member, Ukraine has to comply with general import standards anyway. The adoption of further EU standards has been supported since 2016 through the trade part of the bilateral EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and cooperation between relevant institutions.

The budgetary pressure associated with enlargement rounds also promotes EU agricultural reforms. For example, the accession of agriculturally strong Ukraine could provide an incentive to abolish the current area-based agricultural subsidies in favour of defined nature and environmental services.

Lastly, Ukraine’s accession would strengthen the EU as a geostrategic agricultural and supply actor. After enlargement, its export share in wheat exports alone would be around 30 per cent, even higher than that of Russia, the hitherto dominant world market player.

Ukraine in the path to achieving a climate-neutral EU

Russia’s war on Ukraine has revealed to the EU that trade relations predominantly based on the import of fossil fuels finance aggression, instead of preventing it. At the same time, the limited potential of more ambitious renewables and energy-efficiency deployment in the short term to replace oil, coal, and gas on a large scale is becoming increasingly clear. Despite its pioneering role in climate policy, fossil fuels still account for a good 70 per cent of the EU’s energy mix. This shows how complex and lengthy the path to climate neutrality will be.

Ukraine’s accession would noticeably improve emission-reduction levels already achieved in the EU, since Ukrainian emissions have decreased more than twice as much as those of the EU-27 since 1990. However, Ukraine has a much lower share of renewable energy sources and a much more inefficient use of energy. In this respect, Ukraine comes close to many Central and Eastern European countries at the beginning of their EU memberships. At present, assessing Ukraine’s future energy policy priorities is just as difficult as estimating the country’s export potential for nuclear power, biomass, or hydrogen. What is certain is that recovery and reconstruction programmes to rebuild destroyed infrastructure or modernise industries will be essential, as these will shape the structure of energy consumption in the long term.

Alignment with EU energy and environmental legislation has been underway since Ukraine joined the European Energy Community in 2011. However, EU accession would require considerably strengthening governance frameworks and regulatory instruments in the country. This concerns, among other things, Ukraine’s participation in the EU Emissions Trading System or the adoption of numerous sectoral regulations and directives, for example on the energy efficiency of buildings or the sustainability of bioenergy use.

Due to the lack of a medium-term planning horizon and the economic consequences of the war, Ukraine’s main priorities are unlikely to include aligning its energy and environmental laws with the EU acquis and building administrative capacity in regulation-intensive policy domains. Comprehensive infrastructure and industrial reconstruction programmes, environmental clean-up initiatives, and access to “green” financing will be essential to bring Ukraine along the EU’s path to becoming the “first climate-neutral continent”. However, expecting Ukraine to reach the EU average of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions as early as 2050 seems very optimistic. The transition to a climate-neutral economy is likely to take much longer. This depends, not least, on the course of the war.

Challenges to internal security and the rule of law from an EU perspective

The war in Ukraine affects many areas of non-military security. Fears that Russia might blend terrorists or saboteurs in among the refugees have not materialised for the time being. Concerns about human trafficking and sexual exploitation have prompted national security authorities to take swift countermeasures. Thus far, no massive increase in these crime areas has been reported.

In the medium term, however, major challenges arise. First, the rapidly growing availability of weapons of war in Ukraine poses a significant risk to the EU’s internal security. After the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, firearms circulated illegally for a long time and were used for criminal purposes. Stricter border controls between Ukraine and the Schengen area are therefore unavoidable, both for goods and for the increasing circular migration. After a ceasefire, the EU should monitor the demobilisation of armed groups in Ukraine as closely as possible.

Second, Ukraine suffers from widespread corruption and weak rule of law. The war has set a dynamic process of nation-building in motion and strengthened state institutions. The prosecution of war crimes, supported by international actors, can also promote the rule of law. It is all the more important that Ukraine resists the temptation to convict suspected Russian war criminals too swiftly and harshly. During EU accession negotiations, systematic anti-corruption measures should be prioritised. Furthermore, it is important to prevent the war-related dominance of the executive branch and the necessary defence against Russian attempts at infiltration from causing permanent and severe damage to Ukrainian democracy, for example by imposing additional bans on political parties or giving veterans’ organisations too much influence.

Third, the EU has experience with internationally non-recognised borders only in the case of Cyprus. On top of controlling the regular external borders with Belarus and the Russian Federation, Ukraine will face huge challenges with securing   ceasefire lines, which are likely to be contested over the long term. Both will stand in the way of Ukraine’s full Schengen membership even after EU accession. Therefore, political expectation management should instead emphasise the advantages of the EU’s fundamental freedoms.

In turn, the EU’s Security Union can already benefit from Ukraine during the accession negotiations. Intensive cooperation in military and “hybrid” fields of conflict already exists, especially in cyber defence. At present, it is Western states that provide assistance to Ukraine. But this trend could be reversed, with Ukrainian IT specialists increasingly supporting the EU.

Suggested Citation

Suggested Citation of the 360 Degrees as a whole:

Nicolai von Ondarza (Coord.), Ukraine’s possible EU accession and its consequences, Berlin: German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), July 22, 2022 (360 Degrees).

Suggested citation of individual 360 Degrees contributions:

  • Barbara Lippert, "The EU and the second large-scale Eastern enlargement – déjà vu and innovations," in: Nicolai von Ondarza (Coord.), Ukraine’s possible EU accession and its consequences, Berlin: German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), 07/22/2022 (360 Degrees).
  • Nicolai von Ondarza, "Ukrainian accession also requires reform of EU institutions," in: Nicolai von Ondarza (Coord.), Ukraine’s possible EU accession and its consequences, Berlin: German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), 07/22/2022 (360 Degrees).