Accession would only further destabilise the bloc
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.
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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”.