Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, speaking of Kyiv’s ties with the EU, said that “they are one of us, they belong to us and we want them in.” These public remarks sparked a major debate on Ukraine’s accession prospects and represent a discursive shift in the European Union’s stance regarding potential membership. A change in discourse will not automatically lead to Ukraine’s dreams of accession being immediately fulfilled, but it strengthens the legitimacy of its bid, which is increasingly perceived as a valid policy option.
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After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed his country’s application for candidate status, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling “for the EU institutions to work towards granting EU candidate status to Ukraine.” In this vein, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola confirmed that “we recognize Ukraine’s European perspective.” In addition, a group of eight member states expressed support for EU institutions to “conduct steps to immediately grant Ukraine [an] EU candidate country status and open the process of negotiations” as they “strongly believe that Ukraine deserves receiving an immediate EU accession perspective.”
No Direct Path
Ukraine’s path toward the EU was never a straight line leading up to this point. While former President Leonid Kuchma formulated Ukraine’s wish to join the EU throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the bloc was initially reserved with regard to these aspirations. A Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) between the EU and Ukraine entered into force in March 1998, but a lack of implementation, as well as the upsurge of autocratic tendencies in Ukrainian domestic politics, led former European Commission President Romano Prodi to formulate the “sharing everything with the Union but institutions” paradigm.
In 2002, Prodi declared that we “cannot simply ignore what is happening beyond our borders. Neither can we solve problems with our new neighbours simply by letting them join the Union.” He was referring to endemic corruption, severe impediments to the rule of law or lack of freedom and independence of the media that continue to plague the country. Freedom House still labels Ukraine as only “partly free.”
Despite this, EU–Ukraine cooperation intensified throughout the years with the adoption of an EU–Ukraine Action Plan and Kyiv joining the Eastern Partnership within the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) framework. While the ENP establishes a “special relationship with 16 of its closest neighbours who are currently not considered potential candidates for joining the EU,” Ukraine maintained its rhetoric of a pro-EU membership course.
The aftermath of the Euromaidan protests, the inauguration of a new Ukrainian government and the signing of the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement in June 2014 were accompanied by contradictory statements on the question of Ukrainian membership aspirations on the part of the EU. Stefan Fule, the EU commissioner for enlargement and European neighborhood policy, argued in favor of Ukraine‘s admission in the long term.
Additionally, from 2014 onward, the European Parliament repeatedly stated in its resolutions that UKraine has “a European perspective” and that “pursuant to Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine — like any other European state — have a European perspective and may apply to become members of the Union provided that they adhere to the principles of democracy, respect fundamental freedoms and human and minority rights and ensure the rule of law.”
In contrast, then German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized in 2015 that the Eastern Partnership shall not be understood as an “instrument for EU-accession” and that “Ukraine must first meet all the envisaged conditions.” Even more explicitly, former EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker maintained that “Ukraine will definitely not be able to become a member of the EU in the next 20 to 25 years, and not of NATO either.”
Juncker’s position and the EU’s more cautious reactions regarding Ukraine’s membership aspirations mark a considerable contrast to the current discourse within the bloc. But while von der Leyen’s address to the European Parliament is a positive step forward, it does not mean that the discursive shift on the subject will necessarily lead to Ukraine’s accession. Instead, such rhetoric contributes to rendering this policy option more appropriate and legitimate.
In order to open this “policy space,” as Lene Hansen, professor of international relations at the University of Copenhagen, put it in 2006, Ukraine’s drawing closer to the bloc must be presented as a course of action that conforms with the EU’s identity.
Following this line of thought, in her speech, von der Leyen highlighted Ukraine’s European character. Not only did she declare that the outbreak of war in Ukraine means that “War has returned to Europe” (even though war has been ongoing in Eastern Ukraine since 2014), she also refers to Kyiv as a “European capital” and argues that “the European Union and Ukraine are already closer than ever before.” Von der Leyen also emphasized that “Nobody in this hemicycle can doubt that a people that stands up so bravely for our European values belongs in our European family.”
References to values do not only function as a means to construct a sense of community with Ukraine. They also establish a clear line of difference to Russia. In this respect, von der Leyen cites a Ukrainian newspaper stating that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks “a clash of two worlds, two polar sets of values.” Von der Leyen builds on this quote and argues that “this is a clash between the rule of law and the rule of the gun; between democracies and autocracies; between a rules-based order and a world of naked aggression.”
She draws a clear line not only between the EU itself but also other actors who share these values and Russia on the diametrically opposed side. That Ukraine continues to struggle with corruption, restricted political rights and civil liberties as well as a weak rule of law does not fit into this discourse and so is no longer relevant.
Von der Leyen holds that “If Putin was seeking to divide the European Union, to weaken NATO, and to break the international community, he has achieved exactly the opposite. We are more united than ever.” Indeed, this perfectly reflects what Australian political scientist David Campbell pointed out already in the beginning of the 1990s, namely that foreign policy discourses lend themselves particularly well to the establishment of an understanding of the inside as opposed to the (threatening) outside — that is, to construct identity through difference.
In that sense, the EU does not only have to “stand up against this cruel aggression” due to the values that it shares with Ukraine and deems attacked by the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but also because “The destiny of Ukraine is at stake, but our own fate also lies in the balance,” as von der Leyen states. Thus, the EU’s own security and freedom are closely linked to the situation in Ukraine.
While von der Leyen’s address to the European Parliament perfectly supports the discursive shift that is currently taking place within the EU regarding closer cooperation with Ukraine, she emphasizes that “There is still a long path ahead.” It remains unlikely that the EU will admit Ukraine via an accelerated procedure in the midst of an ongoing war; this would override the Copenhagen Criteria that determine whether a state is eligible to accede to the EU.
Nevertheless, the current discourse lays the foundation for consolidating and popularizing the demand for Ukraine’s accession. Hence, it is now up to the EU to find ways to reconcile this discourse with Russian concerns and to de-escalate the ongoing conflict.
According to Hiski Haukkala, a professor of International Relations at the University of Tampere, from 2014 onward, the EU has tried to perform a balancing act between showing solidarity with Ukraine and condemning Russia’s attempts to deter Kyiv from following a pro-European path while simultaneously trying to allay Moscow’s unease regarding these developments.
Similar to Ukraine’s aspiration to join NATO, Haukkala foresaw in 2015 “that both EU–Russia relations and the wider European security order will be in for a wider and longer disruption than has currently been witnessed” due to this increasing collision. This is exactly the situation we find ourselves in at the moment.
How can the EU preserve its credibility after stating that Ukraine “belongs to the European family” and that its “own fate also lies in the balance” without adding fuel to the fire of Russia’s security concerns? What the EU needs now is a clear strategy regarding a sustainable postwar European security order that must be, whether we like it or not, coordinated with Moscow. This does not mean that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is justified by supposed Russian security concerns.
Nevertheless, this war must end immediately in order to avert an immense humanitarian crisis and to prevent the war from spilling to neighboring countries. Considering that Georgia and Moldova are reported to be waiting to hand in their EU membership application any minute now, the union needs a more robust, diplomatically sensitive strategy toward the eastern countries with which it maintains association agreements. The EU urgently needs to provide answers to the question of how it could strive for further eastern enlargement without it being met with Russian aggression.
When asked about the earliest possible date for Ukrainian accession, von der Leyen replied that “This is hard to say. … Reforms have to be done, processes have to be set up.” This indicates that a clear approach toward Europe’s eastern neighborhood and to Russia in particular is still wanting.
In her speech, Ursula von der Leyen adopted the phrase “Slava Ukraini” — “Glory to Ukraine” — used by President Zelenskyy during his address to the European Parliament. The phrase is a greeting that became closely connected to the Euromaidan protests in contemporary Ukrainian public consciousness. It conveys the vision of an independent and free Ukraine seeking cooperation with the EU.
While the European Union’s discourse demonstrates that this vision already resonates more strongly than ever before, it seems unlikely that Ukraine will be able to join the EU anytime soon. The European Council has to unanimously approve a country’s application, which will remain unrealistic as long as the core problem of overcoming the dividing line between the West and the EU on the one hand and Russia on the other remains unresolved.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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