While war is raging in Ukraine a discussion is starting up whether this country should become a member state of the EU. To become a member state a country must be a European state. It must – Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union – respect the common values of the Member States and undertake to promote them. These are human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of minorities. It must as well satisfy essential conditions – accession criteria or the Copenhagen criteria – to become a member state. These are:
- Political criteria: stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities
- Economic criteria: a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and market forces
- Administrative and institutional capacity to effectively implement the Acquis (the body of common rights and obligations that is binding on all the EU member states) and the ability to take on the obligations of membership.
Ukraine may be granted candidate country status by the European Council on the basis of a recommendation by the European Council. Candidate country status does not give a right to join the Union automatically. Once a country has been granted candidate status the European Commission examines the application in the light of the Copenhagen criteria, draws up an opinion, upon which the European Union can decide to open accession negotiations. Between the moment that the process is started up and actual accession a long time can pass. Turkey is the prime example how long it can take. The Ankara Agreement of 1964 acknowledged the final goal of membership. However, Turkey only submitted an application for membership in 1989, having been dissuaded from taking such a step earlier. Only in 1999 did the European Council as a candidate country on equal footing with other potential candidate countries. And only in 2002 did the European Council agree that negotiations would open “without delay” if the European Council would decide in 2004 on the basis of a report and a recommendation of the European Commission that Turkey fulfilled the political Copenhagen criteria. In the end accession negotiations started in 2005 and stalled almost immediately as a result of the issue of Cyprus and domestic political developments in Turkey and in the European Union. As things stand, it is highly unlikely that Turkey will become a member of the European Union within the foreseeable future.
Why I dwell on Turkey in addressing the question of granting Ukraine the candidate status? Because it shows that taking a first step on the path towards the European Union does not preclude a long-drawn period of negotiations, nor a long pause between the granting of the candidate country status and the opening of negotiations. I think it is relevant to remark in this respect that Germany and Austria did not exclude a different close relation than accession with Turkey before – in the end – agreeing to the opening of negotiations in 2005.
This brings me to president Macron’s speech “Discours du Président de la République à l’occasion de la Conférence sur l’avenir de l’Europe, 9 May 2022, which has wrongly interpreted as setting out a different course for Ukraine than a future accession to the European Union. President Macron said “Mais même si nous lui (L’Ukraine) accordions demain le statut de candidat – l’instruction est faite et je souhaite que nous allions vite – à l’adhésion á notre Union Européenne, nous savons tous parfaitement que le processus leur permettant l’adhésion, prendrait plusieurs années, en vérité, sans doute plusieurs décennies, et c’est la vérité de dire cela…. Thus, president Macron declared that he would support granting Ukraine the status of candidate country, but reflected upon the fact that it will take a long time before Ukraine will be able to take upon itself responsabilities which the membership of the Union entail. He is searching for a solution for the short term, which he names a communauté politique européenne. This European Political Community could embrace all democratic states in Europe and would create a new area of political cooperation, security, energy, transport, investments, infrastructures, free movement of persons, especially of young persons. Joining this Community would not prejudice a later membership of the European Union, nor exclude “those who have left the latter”, i.e. the UK. https://www.elysee.fr/en/emmanuel-macron/2022/05/09/closure-of-the-conference-on-the-future-of-europe
In the subequent press conference president Macron added that his proposal could respond to the wishes of Ukraine and among others the Balkan countries which are not as yet candidate countries. Therefore, the proposal would be granting Ukraine a candidate status as well as creating a new Political Community for Ukraine and other states in the meantime.
We will have to see how president Macron’s idea will be fleshed out. Sceptics say that it will lead to the permanent postponement of accession by offering an alternative to accession. I expect that some will jump on this idea to divide the member states further in an inner circle of countries which support the European ideas fully and those like Poland and Hungary which have difficulty in respecting the Rule of Law, especially the independence of judiciary and the authority of the European Court of Justice. As to Ukraine I would advise president Zelinsky to try to find out how this new Community would supplement the Partnership agreement of over 1000 pages which the European Union concluded with Ukraine. Isn’t that in itself a full program of approximation of Ukraine to the European Union or – unlikely – will this Political Community guarantee the independence and the security of Ukraine and other members?
Ukraine should be careful in accepting paper reinsurance as it learnt the hard way with the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances of 5 December 1994 which prohibited the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States from threatening or using military force or economic coercion against Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan “except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations”, and in 2014, the Minsk Protocol, and then in 2015 Minsk II. They did not shield Ukraine from 21 February 2022.
As to the speed with which Ukraine could advance towards the European Union much depends on the political will of the country itself. Some candidate countries advance quickly because there is the will to reach the goal quickly. The Slovak Republic is an example how quickly a country can advance towards membership even if its starting position is not all that favourable. However, such fast adaptation to the requirements of membership can lead to considerable societal costs, and may lead to temporacy back-sliding after accession. On the other hand, countries which were initially better equipped to deal with the necessary adaption effort to the European Union, like the Czech Republic, could not muster the political will to reform fully, and therefore were not able to profit fully from accession the effort in the beginning, which led to a certain disaffection with the European project which is only slowly overcome. Poland and Hungary profitted immensely from the European Union but are evolving into destructive forces within the European Union. It thus appears that the political, economic and societal starting position does not fully determine the speed and the outcome of the approximation effort by a candidate country. The sustained political will to see the process through is in many respects the decisive factor. We may expect a strong sustained polical will to join the European Union in Ukraine: the utter destruction of the country – some towns remind us of the destruction during the Second World War – is a powerful incentive to rebuild the country anew with respect for the values of the European Union. The expected massive assistance may, if the political will is a given, make much speedier accession feasible than some politicians are claiming at the moment.