by William Nattrass
Tuesday, 1
March 2022
Analysis
13:53

Why Ukraine should not join the EU

Accession would only further destabilise the bloc
by William Nattrass
President Zelensky has signed a request for Ukraine to join the EU

The Ukrainian war gained a new geopolitical dimension yesterday when President Volodymyr Zelensky demanded Ukraine’s immediate accession to the EU and signed the country’s official application to join the bloc. The move followed a declaration on Sunday by the EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who said Ukraine “belongs to us. They are one of us and we want them in.”

Although the suggestion of EU membership might have been intended as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Moscow, Von der Leyen is probably regretting her words now. The request puts pressure on the bloc to take a step which, because of greater mutual defence obligations, would bring the West to the precipice of all-out global conflict.

In this context, it’s no surprise that the EU appears wary about Zelensky’s request for immediate accession; the European Parliament has instead agreed on a non-binding resolution calling for “candidate status” for Ukraine, being voted on at a special session in Brussels this afternoon addressed by Zelensky via video link. Yet support in Eastern Europe for the idea of fast-tracked Ukrainian EU membership has highlighted drastic changes in attitudes towards the country resulting from the Russian invasion.

Hungary’s long-standing scepticism about Ukraine’s integration into the West was, pre-war, one of the structural problems which made imminent Ukrainian EU accession preposterous. Far from ideological kinship with Vladimir Putin, as some like to claim, Hungary’s stance has been shaped by years of bitterness over Ukrainian attempts to clamp down on minority rights affecting some 150,000 ethnic Hungarians living in Transcarpathia.

Yet in an extraordinary move today, Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó joined other eastern European countries in endorsing Ukraine’s EU accession. The Hungarian government’s willingness to drop legitimate concerns over the mistreatment of its minority community in Ukraine is one of the most remarkable signs yet of the EU’s newfound unity over the Russian invasion.

Yet that doesn’t mean the prospect of Ukrainian EU membership is without difficulty. Appalling corruption continues to hobble democratic processes in Ukraine; in 2020, Transparency International found Ukraine to be only marginally less corrupt than Russia itself. And without detracting from Zelensky’s extraordinary courage in recent days, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the president has for years been accused of corrupt relations with Ukraine’s oligarchy.

Removing such systemic obstacles to membership is an aim of Ukraine’s existing agreements with the EU. It’s also been clear from my discussions with Hungarian diplomats and politicians that Ukraine’s failure to live up to the bloc’s standards of governance still causes significant unease (a deep irony given the blame heaped on Viktor Orbán for supposedly eroding democratic standards in the EU).

In this context, endorsements of Ukrainian EU membership are a “crossing the Rubicon” moment. Unity over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is such that considerations of vital importance under normal circumstances are being set aside. Granting Ukraine’s request for immediate membership is unlikely — it would open a Pandora’s Box in relation to the current conflict, paving the way for global war. But the response from Eastern Europe to the Ukrainian request is the surest sign yet that unity in opposition to the Russian invasion is far from fragile.

Update: The European passed its resolution at a special session this afternoon, calling for EU institutions “to work towards granting EU candidate status to Ukraine, in line with Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union and on the basis of merit.” The European Commission is expected to issue an opinion on granting candidate status to Ukraine as a result of the motion; European Council President Charles Michel said the Council must “seriously analyse the symbolic, political, strong and, I believe, legitimate request that has been made”.

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Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
5 months ago

This, along with the whole “no fly zone” discussion is a sign that emotions are gaining the upper hand. Keeping emotions in check in a stressful situation is tough, but cool heads must prevail. Ursula von der Leyen has shown us once again just how unsuited she is to the position she holds.
Ukraine won’t be joining the EU any time soon – but sending out the signal that an unconscionable military attack would change the equation in any way when it comes to the accession process is utterly short-sighted and daft. The EU is a rules-based order. Suddenly throwing some of the most important rules out of the window because our emotions are ablaze and we’re high on the unity is just going to undermine the entire edifice.
The EU will not be in any condition to enlarge further until it has gone through fundamental reform and the Ukraine is nowhere near fulfilling the criteria for accession. Those are the facts. Let’s all just try and stay rational here.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I like your comment about the EU requiring fundamental reform. A monetary union of budgetary independent countries is what has started bringing the instability to the EU. This and complete freedom of movement. How are they going to address this?

Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
5 months ago

It’s possible that the Eastern European EU members supporting this request see Ukraine as a potential ally in their confrontationa with the ‘progressives’ in Brussels.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
5 months ago

Yes, Margaret, that crossed my mind too. Another possibility is that admitting Ukraine would shore up a kind of eastern bulwark against the Franco-German bulldozer.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
5 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Those are both very good reasons to admit Ukraine

L BOER
L BOER
5 months ago

That could be very well the reason indeed (ironically Russia would be too) .

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
5 months ago

Beyond the economic / corruption argument, the EU first needs to make sense of its military / security policy. Europe does need to fundamentally rethink its security, but whether the EU is the right forum for that is doubtful. Many of the EU’s members are neutral and unlikely to be keen for a military role. Remember also that it was the military provisions in the draft EU-Ukraine Treaty that were one of the reasons for the then legitimately elected government of the Ukraine in 2014 to reject the treaty – which then prompted the US coup.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
5 months ago
Reply to  Jürg Gassmann

Well done for mentioning that…there is a lot of inaccurate talk about Putin starting this war because of NATO expansionism when it was specifically EU expansionism in 2014 that proved the trigger for the revolution that year.
Putin feared EU membership as a precursor to Nato membership, but he also feared/dislike it in and for itself.
The idea that somehow NATO is expansionist and this is a bad thing, but that the EU’s expansionism is always and everywhere good, seems to have become an unchallenged version of the history around the current war. IN 2014 it was definitely the EU expanding that was the catalyst for the revolution.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
5 months ago
Reply to  Ted Ditchburn

Again..a sovereign European country can of its own free will, join the EU. I’m a Brit so I have no say so and wish them well and prosperity in years ahead.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
5 months ago
Reply to  Ted Ditchburn

The EU expanded in 2004, 2007 and 2013. There was no expansion in 2014.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
5 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Ukraine was one of the six ex Soviet countries targeted in 2004 as the next circle of some form of accession light, confirmed by Prodi in 2007. The EU told Ukraine they could not participate in two trade agreements, and Yanukovich dithered, then decided to stay in the EEU one, largely because it offered Russia’s cut price gas.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
5 months ago
Reply to  Ted Ditchburn

Yes, quite why so many people take Putin’s grotesque rationalisations for this unprovoked invasion on face value, any more than they would Hitler’s, is beyond me. The EU, whatever it’s many faults, a pacific organisation, opening a branch office in Kiev?! Naive isn’t a strong enough word.

Putin is of the view that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. So, not the Holocaust, the Gulag, the Holodomor, Mao’s killing of millions, not the Khmer Rouge or even the First and Second World Wars. He admires Peter the Great, who was an appalling tyrant, who among many other things had his his own son ‘knouted’ to death, killed tens of thousands of labourers in the building of St Petersburg, had thousands of rebels tortured to death, and of course conquered huge territories especially from Poland-Lithuania and Sweden, which might well otherwise have developed in a more western and liberal direction. Instead they became yet another region of the brutal autocracy Russia – or rather Muscovy – has always been. That seems to be the rather greater historical tragedy.

Last edited 5 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
5 months ago
Reply to  Ted Ditchburn

You can factor in the recent efforts by the US to destabilise other former Soviet states

Mike Wylde
Mike Wylde
5 months ago
Reply to  Jürg Gassmann

If the Ukranian people had not liked the results of the 2014 revolution then they were at complete liberty to reverse it at the last elections. They did not and voted overwhelmingly in favour of the changes made. There was no CIA coup!

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
5 months ago

Stepping back a bit from the war, the EU does not need another economic basket case like Greece.
Would Ukraine be expected to adopt the euro? I assume so. They lose then all control of monetary policy and become another economic vassal of Germany.
Better to consider something like EFTA, if there is a need to make a statement that Ukraine is European.

Mark Cole
Mark Cole
5 months ago

Emotions are high with lots of dangerous requests from Zelensky, thankfully Boris is more circumspect than VDL; I am sure Turkey felt their nose put out of joint with her comments.
The world would be a better place without Putin but we in the west seemed to have lost something in our diplomacy over the last 2o years with embarrassing not exactly successful sorties into other countries and a shift in our strategic thinking and tactical execution;
Many lament the lack of real strategic thinking in the West since the end of the Cold War.There has been a failure to think carefully about the conjunction of global interests or to projectourselves realistically into the future. While the West called all the shots in the 1990s that did not seem to matter. But now it does, not only because the West no longer calls all the shots, butalso because the future is visibly upon us. One of the most momentous steps in the last 20 years,undertaken with much strategic talking and little genuine strategic thinking, was the enlargement of NATO after 1994. The United Kingdom opposed the idea in the early 1990s, until the Clinton administration pressed for it in the run-up to the 1994 NATO Summit and the US Congressional elections. The UK discovered merits in the idea that had not previously been evident–or perhaps British policy-makers merely felt they had to recognize the reality of a pax Americana and the US electoral cycle. Realpolitik thinking, perhaps, but not strategic in the proper sense of the term. Many argued against NATO enlargement at the time, precisely on the grounds that this would fundamentally change the political balance in Europe in ways that would be difficult to control. ref https://www.jstor.org/stable/25144993?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=NATO%20expansion%20a%20policy%20error%20of%20historic%20importance&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3DNATO%2Bexpansion%2Ba%2Bpolicy%2Berror%2Bof%2Bhistoric%2Bimportance%26so%3Drel&ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_search_gsv2%2Fcontrol&refreqid=fastly-default%3A5e8099b750727ce7f9985b037580b3b8

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
5 months ago
Reply to  Mark Cole

Emotions are high with lots of dangerous requests from Zelensky, thankfully Boris is more circumspect than VDL

And so he should. Britain has military assets. It’s alright to speak loudly and wildly when you are unarmed (as VDL is) Quite another when you are are armed and armed indeed with nukes as Boris and Macron are.

Peter LR
Peter LR
5 months ago

I see Nigel Farage has repeated his assertion from years ago that the possibility of Ukraine joining the EU is what is really antagonising Putin. He seems to fear that Putin thinks this would lead to moral degradation in terms of the traditions of the Slavic Christian tradition.

JP Martin
JP Martin
5 months ago
Reply to  Peter LR

I think this is more about preserving his own power than defending ideals. He probably fears a prosperous and democratic Ukraine at Russia’s doorstep because it would plant ideas about a better life in the imaginations of ordinary Russians.

Last edited 5 months ago by JP Martin
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
5 months ago
Reply to  Peter LR

The idea that a former KGB officer is some sort of supreme guardian of the Christian tradition, is one of many ludicrous claims made on behalf of this tyrant.

Last edited 5 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
5 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Again, there is more than one ‘Christian tradition’. As far as I can see, Putin fits right in with one particular strain of armed Christianity that first developed in Rome in the 4th C. (the inspiration for all European military tyrannies ever since). ‘Chivalry’ is the sanitised name for it.

Last edited 5 months ago by Arnold Grutt
Justin Clark
Justin Clark
5 months ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Highly recommend this for real detailed insight – https://youtu.be/Ys2zTL-b3eE (Russia, Ukraine and the West history talk) with Dr Jordan Peterson and Frederick Kagan.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
5 months ago

So it joins Turkey then? So the EU can fantasise about a power bloc whose bounds grow wider still and wider…but without every having to actually let them in?

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
5 months ago

You cant compare Ukraine’s governance problems with anything Orban has done. Romania and Bulgaria both acceded under the wire, without complying with the necessary standards, and that has not worked well, despite Romania being the first CEE country to sign an association agreement in 2004. . I am sure the poorest country in Europe would love to get its hands on the billions a year it would need, but until the judiciary, the oligarchs controlling and stealing Ukraine’s resources, and other state actors can be reformed, nothing will improve in Ukraine.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
5 months ago

As the article the article hints, without the rose tinted specs, Zelensky and those that put him there, and who presumably continue to exercise huge influence, are not the icons of democracy and freedom our press and politicians would have us believe.
Having said that, the elites in Europe an the US appear to be little different.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
5 months ago

Nearly all on here are Brits. We left the EU so now it’s really none of our business.

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
5 months ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

I voted Leave and would do so again on any day of the week and twice on a Sunday. But the EU is still our business as is Europe more widely. There are a lot of European fields which are “forever” British just to underline that Europe is our business.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
5 months ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

But NATO shares the continent with EU, and there are numerous members of both, so things done by the EU, and maybe even statements made by VDL without British foreknowledge, may involve us in war.

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
5 months ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

Love football, Hate FIFA… both are possible.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
5 months ago

If Putin carves off the eastern regions and Crimea as I’m expecting, why shouldn’t the rest of Ukraine be free to join whichever alliances it chooses seeing as it will no longer border Russia? Putin has his buffer and the Ukrainians can look westward for their needs

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
5 months ago

They’ll join if they want to. Ok this is extraordinary but the principle counts. A sovereign country wants to join. Their choice.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
5 months ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

Well, 27 countries have to agree, and the process is long and formidable, as UvdL would not know.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
5 months ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Ans so too should Zelensky. However, at least he has the excuse of desperation.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
5 months ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Ok, apply.

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
5 months ago

Can someone explain what Ukraine gets by joining the EU? It’s not military, is it automatic funding/relief for disasters etc..?

Frederick B
Frederick B
5 months ago

Best solution would have been a “Commonwealth of Ruthenia” (name immaterial) – a sort of EU for the three orthodox Eastern Slav countries, because it is that particular combination of culture, race and history which unites them. Putin has now made that impossible for a century.

David McDowell
David McDowell
5 months ago

#brickingit

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
5 months ago

The Hungarian government’s willingness to drop legitimate concerns over the mistreatment of its minority community in Ukraine is one of the most remarkable signs yet of the EU’s newfound unity over the Russian invasion.”
Hungary is applying perspective and proportionality, William. It’s not really that remarkable in these circumstances, except to you.