Following speaking of Kyiv’s ties with the , said that “they are one of us, they belong to us and we want them in.” These public remarks sparked a major debate on ’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 ’s dreams of accession being immediately fulfilled, but it strengthens the legitimacy of its bid, which is increasingly perceived as a valid policy option.invasion of on February 24, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen,
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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 institutions to work towards granting candidate status to .” In this vein, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola confirmed that “we recognize ’s European perspective.” In addition, a group of eight member states expressed support for institutions to “conduct steps to immediately grant [an] candidate country status and open the process of negotiations” as they “strongly believe that deserves receiving an immediate perspective.”
No Direct Path
’s path toward the was never a straight line leading up to this point. While former President Leonid Kuchma formulated ’s wish to join the throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the bloc was initially reserved with regard to these aspirations. A Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) between the and 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 as only “partly free.”
Despite this, establishes a “special relationship with 16 of its closest neighbours who are currently not considered potential candidates for joining the ,” maintained its rhetoric of a pro- course.– cooperation intensified throughout the years with the adoption of an – Action Plan and Kyiv joining the Eastern Partnership within the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) framework. While the ENP
The aftermath of the Euromaidan protests, the inauguration of a new Ukrainian government and the signing of the argued in favor of ‘s admission in the long term.– Association Agreement in June 2014 were accompanied by contradictory statements on the question of Ukrainian membership aspirations on the part of the . Stefan Fule, the commissioner for enlargement and European neighborhood policy,
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 , Georgia, Moldova and — 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 ” and that “ must first meet all the envisaged conditions.” Even more explicitly, former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker maintained that “ will definitely not be able to become a member of the in the next 20 to 25 years, and not of NATO either.”
Juncker’s position and the EU’s more cautious reactions regarding 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 ’s accession. Instead, such rhetoric contributes to rendering this policy option more appropriate and legitimate.’s membership aspirations mark a considerable contrast to the current discourse within the bloc. But while von der Leyen’s
In order to open this “policy space,” as Lene Hansen, professor of international relations at the University of Copenhagen, put it in 2006, ’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’s European character. Not only did she declare that the outbreak of war in means that “War has returned to Europe” (even though war has been ongoing in Eastern since 2014), she also refers to Kyiv as a “European capital” and argues that “ and 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. They also establish a clear line of difference to . In this respect, von der Leyen cites a Ukrainian newspaper stating that invasion of 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 theitself but also other actors who share these values and on the diametrically opposed side. That 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, 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, thedoes not only have to “stand up against this cruel aggression” due to the values that it shares with and deems attacked by the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but also because “The destiny of 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 .
While von der Leyen’s address to the European Parliament perfectly supports the discursive shift that is currently taking place within theregarding closer cooperation with , she emphasizes that “There is still a long path ahead.” It remains unlikely that the will admit 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 .
Nevertheless, the current discourse lays the foundation for consolidating and popularizing the demand for’s accession. Hence, it is now up to the 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 has tried to perform a balancing act between showing solidarity with and condemning attempts to deter Kyiv from following a pro-European path while simultaneously trying to allay Moscow’s unease regarding these developments.
Similar to’s aspiration to join NATO, Haukkala foresaw in 2015 “that both – 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 thepreserve its credibility after stating that “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 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 invasion of 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 application any minute now, the union needs a more robust, diplomatically sensitive strategy toward the eastern countries with which it maintains association agreements. The 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 in particular is still wanting.
In her speech, Ursula von der Leyen adopted the phrase “Slava Ukraini” — “Glory to public consciousness. It conveys the vision of an independent and free seeking cooperation with the .” — 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
While the European Union’s discourse demonstrates that this vision already resonates more strongly than ever before, it seems unlikely thatwill be able to join the 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 on the one hand and 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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