As the war still rages, and despite significant moves to support Ukraine militarily, the weaknesses of the European Union (EU) have been once again exposed.
At a time when Ukraine now looks likely to drop any future applications to join NATO in an attempt to attain a ceasefire and a withdrawal of Russian troops, EU member states are still divided over Ukraine’s application, leaving the EU as a whole unable to respond.
Granting full EU membership could take decades to accomplish in practice and is largely symbolic – but acknowledging it would send a powerful message of solidarity. In contrast, denying it gives the perception that Ukraine is being in effect abandoned by its ‘European family’.
European integration was created with one goal in mind – to end warfare on the European continent. So successful was the EU in this regard, that it came to regard itself as a post-geopolitical entity.
But Russia’s war against Ukraine has caught the EU completely unprepared. Firstly, until now Russia had been accorded respect as a business partner. Secondly, Ukraine was treated, albeit benignly, as something of an irritation and, for some member states, a hindrance in their ‘Russia first policy’.
The war means that both of these perceptions have been turned on their head. Russia has become a global business pariah while Ukraine has the potential to become the keystone in the European project.
The ‘neighbourhood approach’
For two decades, Ukraine has been part of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). The initiative was aptly defined as a ‘bureaucratic answer to the geopolitical question of boundaries of Europe’. Including both the neighbours of Europe in the south and the east, the ENP lacked a clear vision and incentives to achieve its lofty aspirations of ‘stability and prosperity’.
Ukraine insisted on a more demanding Association Agreements in anticipation of getting a vaunted membership perspective. However, the Agreement, which is very long and highly technical, is not underpinned by any long-term political vision.
On its own it doesn’t offer a viable roadmap and enticing stimulus for European integration. And therein lies Ukraine’s problem: the Agreement is a means to an end in terms of membership, while for many in the EU, the Agreement functions exactly as it intended – to bypass the tricky discussion of membership.
The EU and Ukraine after Crimea
In the wake of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in the Crimea and Donbas, the EU carried on ‘business as usual’: there has been no political upgrade beyond the already negotiated Association Agreement.
This doesn’t mean that relations have been stagnant: in particular, there has been some excellent work done by the EU to promote fundamental reforms in Ukraine, a truly innovative and pioneering approach. Yet, in broader geopolitical terms, the EU’s eastern policy has been scaled down in scope and ambition since 2014.
Russia’s invasion has brought the limits of the EU’s technocratic focus when confronted with aggression and war into a sharp relief. Nothing evidences this more than the calls by presidents of a number of European countries for Ukraine to be granted membership. And the fact that the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for granting Ukraine a ‘candidate status’.
Back to the historical drawing board
In the current context, it is clear that the Association Agreement with Ukraine is no longer adequate to address the challenges facing the EU – or Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials know only too well what full membership entails. The Association Agreement – despite all its weaknesses – has been a formidable learning curve for Ukraine. Being mindful of the western Balkan experience, they know only too well that ‘without reforming Ukraine, all the plans and perspectives will remain loud words, and jeopardize Ukraine’s ‘return to Europe’.
Even with a long road ahead, still the membership perspective is essential. It would be a vote of confidence the Ukrainians desperately need. Any proposed upgrades along the line of ‘Association Plus Plus’ would be a mere technocratic placebo and could hardly counterpose Russian imperialism in any meaningful way.
Confronted with Russia’s aggression, the post-Soviet countries are losing their faith in the West in general and the EU in particular. Tellingly, only two states voted in support of the UN’s resolution on Ukraine: Moldova and Georgia – the countries with Association Agreements and membership aspirations.
Other post-Soviet countries in Europe and Central Asia are already too firmly controlled by Russia to openly condemn Russian aggression, even though their societies feel massive solidarity with Ukraine.
No other time since its inception has the EU been confronted with such a stark attack on peace and stability in Europe and the challenge to live up to its own lofty rhetoric. The people across the member states have responded with unprecedented acts of solidarity with and support for Ukraine and the two million Ukrainian refugees in Europe.