In the wake of Russia’s invasion, Ukraine has redoubled its efforts to gain an EU membership perspective, while Georgia and Moldova have submitted formal applications. In a significant step, member states have charged the European Commission with assessing these applications. However, at two summits in March, in Versailles and Brussels, leaders expressly declined to grant candidate status or even the lesser step of a membership perspective. While those supporting membership portrayed summit statements recognizing “Ukraine’s place in our European family” as a positive opening, most Western European governments’ pronouncements are still doubting and negative rather than enthusiastic and encouraging. The question has gained urgency as it has been raised in peace talks between Ukraine and Russia.
The arguments of those skeptical of enlargement to these three countries look increasingly questionable on their own terms. But the EU will also need a different and much more politically engaged approach to accession to make a membership perspective relevant to the current context and challenges, especially in Ukraine.
In the last decade, the EU has provided a great deal of support to Ukraine, as well as to Georgia and Moldova, under the rubric of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) (which also includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus). The billions of euros in aid have undoubtedly helped to shore up Ukraine’s institutional and societal resilience, which has impressed the world since the start of the invasion. However, the EU has withheld what these countries insist would make a game-changing difference for them: an offer of membership. From the late 2000s, the EU judged that its strategic interest in the region would be best served by a “halfway house” policy. It did not acquiesce to Russia’s claim that the EaP states fall into a privileged sphere of influence and instead provided a meaningful degree of support to the EaP states, yet they explicitly refused to grant them a membership perspective. This position embodied a delicate and uneasy mix of cooperative-liberal and defensive-realist geostrategy.
The question of EU membership for these countries is now firmly back on the agenda as a result of the war. Ukraine has renewed its plea for a positive signal, arguing that the war makes this even more necessary. Feeling more vulnerable than ever, Georgia and Moldova have also formally applied for membership. The alignment of these three countries, which have recently labeled themselves the Association Trio, has somewhat supplanted the EaP framework (although many Ukrainians feel that the current Georgian government has been less than fulsome in its support during the invasion).
The EU’s response to date has been inconclusive and divided. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said “We want them in.” Central European and Baltic states are pushing for the EU to grant a membership perspective; the European Parliament also voted in favor of this. France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, and others have responded more negatively, placing far more stress on the unlikelihood of enlargement happening soon. On March 7, the member states asked the European Commission to begin screening the three membership applications, bringing hope of a breakthrough change of position. Yet at their two summits since then, leaders prevaricated and failed to give a watertight, unequivocal commitment to the Association Trio.
The decision over further enlargement is a difficult one, involving strategic trade-offs and complex interlinkages between different areas of policy. But on balance, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its consequences tilt these considerations in favor of granting a membership perspective. This is the case across several dimensions and in each of these the changed context renders the rejectionist case more questionable.
From a moral point of view, it would be cruel to rebuff Ukraine’s plea for membership when so many of its citizens have been laying down their lives for the values the EU proclaims its own, and when its president has given the rest of Europe a lesson in leadership. This would sap the EU’s claim to any kind of moral clarity in its foreign policy for years to come and would weaken its international leverage and credibility. It is especially puzzling that a country like Spain—whose own fragile democracy benefited from the anchor of EU membership in the years following Franco’s death—has equivocated in this regard.
But, leaving aside moral considerations, what about the EU’s self-interest? Even if not openly, many member states have long held to the somewhat realist line that offering membership to the EaP countries would provoke Russia. This geopolitical calculation is one reason the EU has held back from a full embrace of the Association Trio. Many in the union have opted for security-as-exclusion in contradiction of all the EU’s rhetoric about inclusive security. Those expressing hesitancy today over a membership perspective are in effect sticking to the line that the “halfway house” policy is still best.
However, the war changes the premise of this geostrategic calculus. Denying them EU membership perspectives did not dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine, or earlier, Georgia. Leaving the EaP states as a de facto strategic buffer has not enhanced either their security or that of EU states—in fact, quite the reverse. Even on its own narrow terms, the realist rebuff stands highly compromised. The issue now is not so much about stopping a possible war as about helping Ukraine recover and shore up its sovereignty in the wake of an invasion. The denial of membership cannot be justified by what it failed to prevent.
In current diplomatic talks, EU membership has been raised as part of the quid pro quo package for Ukraine giving up its aspiration to join NATO (together with alternative security guarantees), a step that should prompt a rethink from skeptical member states. EU enlargement is indeed distinct from NATO expansion, centered as it is on economic, regulatory, and social issues rather than military commitments. Membership is not zero-sum: one country’s entry into the EU does not have to detract from its neighbors’ security or well-being. It is perhaps worth recalling that the model of “Finlandization” to which the realist line often cleaves led to Finland’s later entry into the EU, so this doctrine cannot rightly be conflated with permanent denial of membership.
Another commonly given justification for the EU rejection of the EaP states’ membership aspirations is that acceptance would sit uneasily with member-states’ populations. Governments have in recent years often cautioned that such an enlargement would break the EU’s “absorption capacity” at a time when it needs to double down on tackling its internal challenges. This “deepening before widening” line is still prevalent, especially in France. Yet it seems at least questionable considering the societal support for Ukraine that has become evident across Europe. One poll finds European citizens now in favor of accepting Ukraine as an EU member. Societies’ solidarity has, if anything, run ahead of governments’ willingness to support Ukraine. Many citizens would still have doubts and look to preserve the existing structure of benefits and EU funding, but it is clearer today that this external question is also about the EU’s internal solidity and resilience, not a secondary or separate concern. Deepening and widening can surely not now be held as mutually exclusive logics.
Some skeptics stress more subtle justifications for their blocking position. They routinely insist that EU membership is not realistic, that accession procedures would be purely symbolic, that they would anyway take a long time to conclude and be subject to states meeting entry criteria, and that Ukraine needs to focus on more immediate priorities. This is now the line commonly heard from leaders in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain, as well as from High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell. Many analysts share these doubts, pointing out the requirements that need to be met prior to membership and suggesting the most that should be offered is practical cooperation on issues like free movement.
Even if there are legitimate concerns here, these points do not offer a convincing argument against offering a membership perspective; rather, they should be taken as a prompt for changing the EU’s strategy in the region. Part of the argument is blatantly disingenuous. When the membership skeptics now talk of the need to be realistic, their argument is circular: the only thing that makes an offer to start membership talks unrealistic is their own rejectionism. The fact that accession takes a long time is hardly news to aspirants. Citizens of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have repeated constantly over the last decade that they fully understand that accession takes a long time and is subject to onerous preconditions. What is more, the three states have already implemented much of the EU’s acquis, putting them ahead of previous entrants at the point when those entrants began accession talks. What they seek in the short term is the political signal of being accepted as candidates. Also, offering a membership perspective would not take away from the EU’s ability to address short-term priorities—these are not mutually exclusive, as the skeptical line tends to suggest.
Reformers in the Association Trio states stress that accession preconditions would strengthen their efforts to deepen democratization. They readily accept that membership needs to be “merit-based,” in the official EU phraseology—providing that this does not become a pretext for constant delay and a successive ratcheting up of preconditions, not least for a country suffering such trauma as Ukraine. Another often-heard argument is that the current state of politics in the Association Trio militates against these states meeting the preconditions for membership. Skeptics also take the related line that the three countries cannot “jump the queue” of states that are already candidates and negotiating entry conditions through different policy chapters. Yet, a conditionality- and merit-based assessment of progress on the accession criteria would address these objections.
A related position is that the EU should focus on practical upgrades to the EaP rather than debates about future accession of the Association Trio. This is emerging as part of the official EU line, with the European Commission reportedly working up proposals to offer the three countries new privileged partnerships. But the emerging reality on the ground is likely to make this approach woefully inadequate from a strategic point of view. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine requires the EU instead to replace the relatively low-key EaP policy framework, which has splintered and atrophied in recent years, with a new strategic impetus. Belarus has effectively left the existing framework following the country’s post-election crisis, Armenia has rejected the association agreement and regulatory instruments that represent the EaP’s main tools, and ever-more-repressive Azerbaijan signed a “declaration on allied interaction” with Russia hours before the invasion of Ukraine, moving away from its traditional multi-vector foreign policy. Whatever the EaP’s initial virtues, events have overtaken it and the EU cannot keep leaning on it as a substitute for enlargement.
A New Approach to Accession
Having said all this, the EU needs to think hard and creatively about how to make an accession offer directly relevant to the Association Trio’s immediate imperatives. Even in the case that member states did reach the necessary unanimity in favor of offering them a membership perspective, the EU would need to revisit the accession process. It has to act in a more political manner in this regard. The invasion leaves sovereignty, security, and democracy more clearly fused into a single priority. In Ukraine, there is likely to be for some time a combination of insurgency and more traditional efforts to further democratic reform through civil society organizations. Existing EU policy instruments and processes are not set up to deal with this. The failed EU support for the insurgency against the Assad regime in Syria offers a cautionary tale about leaving democratic forces even more vulnerable by offering them general encouragement but no effective support.
The EU needs to move above and beyond its economics- and regulation-led approach to an understanding that for Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, democratic self-preservation needs politicized agency. Association agreements and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas have been good at transferring EU rules and regulations to these countries, but bad at fomenting the kind of direct democratic and security agency they now need as the core pillar of their political resilience. While the EU has commonly prioritized a technocratic approach, that strategy will have less traction and look decidedly incongruent in the post-invasion context. At their March 24–25 summit, leaders struck a discordant tone in using standard language about Ukraine having to persist with harmonization reforms and offering “technical assistance” to this end—in a country suffering military invasion and hardly able to function as a state.
The EU’s policies will need to be more directly political and its instruments will need to be remodeled accordingly. It will need to provide quicker and more direct help for those on the ground seeking to reestablish democracy or, where it still clings on, to defend it from assault. Democracy support needs to become the leading edge of EU involvement in the region, rather than being a second-order priority as has been the case to date. The lesson from other countries’ now atrophied pre-accession processes is that more political engagement is needed, rather than the EU offering accession as a distant prospect and then pushing for extensive technical harmonization in the hope that this will suffice to resolve intensely political problems.
Such an adjusted and more committed approach to pre-accession cooperation will be especially necessary to deal with the specificity of the Ukrainian case. This may need to advance without Ukraine’s government having control over the country’s entire territory. If Russia does occupy part of Ukraine for the foreseeable future, the EU will need a flexible, creative, and distinctive approach. Ukraine’s needs and institutional capacities will be different from those of other states that have made the journey from applicants to members. Accession in a context of curtailed statehood will call for cooperation aimed at the preservation of institutions as much as technical alignments. With Ukraine in a struggle to defend the basic precepts of statehood, there would be little value in simply opening accession talks and then slipping into the EU’s standard low-key technocratic approach.
The invasion of Ukraine might also trigger a wider redesign of this enlargement paradigm and of the EU’s external strategies. A second-best alternative would be a new “membership-lite” status with a phased entry into the union. If member-state governments really are minded not to offer Ukraine a full membership perspective, then they could design a status between a country being fully inside and fully outside the union. The lasting impasse with the Balkan candidate states and Turkey—and perhaps even the United Kingdom’s post-membership situation—invites such a rethink anyway. The Accession Trio would not be happy with this option, but it would be better than another categorical rejection. It might be feasible for the EU to devise a multi-level membership framework that would still allow candidates to progress eventually to full membership. A staged accession process might also offer candidates all the rights of membership but without full veto power in a penultimate phase lasting quite some time; this would address concerns that new members with democratic shortcomings could unsettle the EU’s internal workings. Key here is that these kinds of modified membership schemes should be devised as a tactical help toward full membership and as a way of assuaging skeptics’ procedural misgivings, rather than forcing the Association Trio and others to accept being permanently in an outer EU ring against their will.
From the ashes of war, the EU will need to revisit its political strategy toward Ukraine and other Eastern European states. There has been much commentary about how the invasion has spurred new European unity and pushed the EU into steps previously unthinkable—in particular, the provision of weapons to Ukraine. But the self-congratulatory tone that has emerged risks being taken as tasteless across the EaP countries, because the EU and the international community have failed to prevent such numbing tragedy in Ukraine. For all the talk of the EU adopting unprecedented steps, of it becoming a geopolitical power, and of “everything being different” today, in practice there is for now much continuity in its core eastern strategy: a desire to support the Association Trio without being deeply or fully committed to them.
While there are reasoned arguments on both sides of the enlargement debate, on balance the case for granting these states a membership perspective has strengthened and the reasons for denying them have lost force. If some member states refuse to grant them one, this would leave EU rhetoric about supporting Ukraine sounding hollow. Still, the crucial question is how to marry a membership perspective with a more political and proactive approach to supporting democratic self-preservation in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region. Rather than unimaginatively listing the known difficulties of achieving accession, politicians and analysts should focus on adapting the pre-accession process to work as a vehicle for recuperating sovereignty and defending democracy, not just for technical harmonization.
After the EU’s mistakes in reading the strategic dynamics in Eastern Europe prior to the invasion, a more Ukraine-led, more political approach to the enlargement process is now apposite. While member states have strengthened their defense commitments, the EU will also need a more positive vision and more effective leverage over political trends across the region. Against this backdrop, the objections to giving a membership perspective to Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine now look less convincing on their own terms and the case for a more political eastern strategy much stronger.
The author thanks Rosa Balfour, Michael Emerson, Ruth Henckes, Iulian Romanyshyn, Olga Burlyuk, Ben Tallis, and Elene Panchulidze for their comments on the text.
This article is part of the European Democracy Hub initiative run by Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy.
This document was produced with the financial assistance of the European Union. The views expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of the European Union.