Eventual Ukrainian EU membership combined with a commitment to NATO neutrality could provide a compromise that enables Kyiv to honour the spirit of Maidan and facilitate Ukraine’s geopolitical shift away from Russia, without being a gift to Putin’s propaganda machine.
If Ukrainian forces can repel Russia’s latest invasion, one question will loom large: when countries said that they stood with Ukraine, did they really mean it? A path towards Ukrainian EU membership is the only way to answer this question with a definitive ‘yes’.
Can the EU fast-track Ukraine’s membership?
President Volodymyr Zelensky has called on the EU to grant his country membership immediately. Such a decision would create a whole series of issues, notably in the Western Balkans. Countries such as Albania have spent over a decade waiting for EU membership. Despite receiving Tirana’s application for membership in 2009, the EU only opened negotiations over membership with Albania’s government in 2020.
This delay is attributable in part to the EU’s stringent membership criteria. Applicants must demonstrate certain levels of institutional transparency and financial market strength before they can be granted candidacy. Applicants from the Western Balkans must also meet criteria regarding good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation.
While Ukraine’s crisis has dominated recent headlines, it’s important that the traumatic stories emerging from Mariupol and Bucha don’t overshadow the EU’s existing relationships in the region. There is still sympathy for Moscow throughout parts of the Western Balkans. Appearing to give a Ukrainian application special treatment could risk pushing several countries further into Vladimir Putin’s arms. This would be an absolute disaster.
Then there’s the EU’s economic position to consider. Even before Russia’s recent invasion, Ukraine’s GDP stood at less than $160bn. That put it below several neighbouring EU members in terms of productivity (in 2020 Romanian GDP was just over $248bn, Poland’s over $596bn, and French more than $2.6tn). While many EU citizens stand with Ukraine, they may not support the economic risks that Ukrainian economic integration would pose.
While EU support for Ukraine’s recovery looks certain, integrating Ukraine into the EU as a member is much more of a long-term project.
Perhaps the EU could give Ukraine a transitional membership. This membership would be guaranteed after the successful completion of various reforms over a defined period of time. This would avoid the ‘queue-jump’ problem without risking the symbolic damage of refusing a post-war Ukraine access to the European family.
A possible path to peace
Eastern Europe already carries enormous risk, with the potential for conflict spilling over into nearby NATO states and submerging Europe in even more tragedy and heartbreak. In the worst case scenario, Europe could face nuclear or chemical warfare.
There are at least two things the UK can push for to encourage Russian de-escalation and assist Ukraine’s journey towards EU membership.
First, requiring Russia to retreat only as far as its 23 February positions in Ukraine, rather than withdrawing fully, before discussing sanctions relief. This would incentivise Russia to approach negotiations in earnest. It could also minimise the risk of a disorderly Russian retreat from much of Ukraine and provide an opportunity to deliver life-saving aid to besieged cities such as Mariupol.
Second, assisting President Zelensky in the development of what he has called “preventative sanctions”. Rather than a new iron curtain, these sanctions would essentially create an iron shutter. Russia would only gain access to Western markets if it respectfully acknowledged both Western values and the sovereignty of its European neighbours. The trigger for increasing sanctions would no longer be land warfare. It would be acts of psychological and information warfare such as nuclear blackmail.
These two policy adjustments would provide Russia with a way back from its current pariah status, if it respected Ukraine’s decision to turn West.
Granting Ukraine EU membership without also requiring their NATO neutrality would be fuel for Putin’s propaganda machine, allowing him to falsely accuse the EU of complicity in plans to threaten Russia. EU membership combined with NATO neutrality, however, would contribute to discrediting Putin’s lies. If Ukraine is willing to sacrifice prospective NATO membership in peace talks, Russia need not worry about NATO weapons appearing across their neighbour’s eastern border.
EU membership alone would merely enter Ukraine into a trading arrangement with its Western neighbours. That shouldn’t pose any military threat to Moscow.
Ukraine’s decision to turn West is clear. The need to make that transition without risking a never-ending war with Russia is unquestionable. EU membership for Ukraine could provide a viable middle-ground and, ultimately, a road to long-term peace.
Tom O’Brien FRSA is a copywriter and researcher.