03.10.23 EU Review

A Headache for the EU: Ukraine's accession to the European Union will demand serious reforms both in Ukraine and in the Union itself

The process of Ukraine's European integration is poised to become the most significant challenge and stress test for the European Union since 2004 when the EU integrated 10 new member states simultaneously. Never before has the EU attempted to integrate a country of such magnitude that is so unprepared for accession, lagging significantly in terms of GDP per capita, and simultaneously grappling with extreme circumstances. It is already evident that, first of all, Ukraine's European integration process will likely be tied to political reforms within the EU, which will see the Union shifting away from the principle of consensus in favour of qualified majority voting. Second, Ukraine itself will face substantial reforms, and this part of the journey is unlikely to be without obstacles. Generally speaking, the integration process is likely to involve three parallel processes: reforms within Ukraine, the development and implementation of a new 'Marshall Plan' for Ukraine, and the EU’s adaptation to Ukraine's accession, which will involve a number of political innovations.

Solidarity and Reality

In June 2022, Ukraine obtained candidate status for the European Union, and in December 2023, the European Commission is expected to submit its assessment, which could lead to the start of accession negotiations. Candidate status solidifies the strategic aspirations of both sides but does not guarantee rapid accession: Turkey has been a candidate since 1999, North Macedonia since 2004, Montenegro since 2010, Serbia since 2012, and Albania since 2014.

If not for the war with Russia, the prospects for Ukraine's real integration into the EU within the next decade would likely be slim to none. Unlike its candidate status, which is largely political, real integration presents a complex set of practical challenges. The EU operates on a system of mutual obligations, and the inability of a particular country to fulfil them entirely means that other countries have to bear certain costs. The rapid expansion of the EU in the 20th century has led to the emergence of a pool of recipient countries that receive aid from donor countries. The addition of another recipient country not only increases the burden on donors but also reduces assistance to other recipients. The scale of the assistance required depends on the country's readiness for accession.

All of this explains why, at this new stage, Ukraine will face significant pressure from the EU to undertake reforms, and why talk of 'solidarity' with Ukraine during the war will hold much less weight. For Europe, the challenge is not only to manage Ukraine's problematic integration but also to avoid undermining the Union's unity, which always appears fragile due to its internal principles.

Although public opinion in EU countries is largely in favour of Ukraine's desire to join the Union and recognises the unique circumstances of the current situation, rapid integration is unrealistic, not only due to the ongoing conflict but also because of the necessary preparatory reforms that both sides must undertake, as outlined by the authors of a comprehensive report from the Center for European Political Analysis (CEPA). In this context, Germany, France, and Poland, as Ukraine's key allies in this endeavour, will play a decisive role in the integration process and become the political engines behind future agreements and compromises.

However, the readiness of the political elites in these three countries will also depend on Ukraine's ability to implement the corresponding reforms. In the political sphere, Ukraine must address issues related to the stability of democratic institutions, reducing the influence of oligarchs on decision-making, corruption, and stabilising its market economy. In addition, Ukraine must demonstrate its institutional capacity to uphold the independence of the judiciary, the rule of law, human rights, and minority rights, including linguistic minorities. Moreover, it needs to enhance decentralisation and bolster the resilience of local self-governance.

A Headache for the EU

The authors of the report highlight that Ukraine's prospective entry into the European Union poses a colossal challenge not only for Ukraine itself but also for the entire EU. With a population of more than 40 million, Ukraine will become the EU's fifth-largest member state, after Spain and before Poland in terms of its size. However, it will also be the poorest member state in the EU, based on its pre-war GDP per capita, which is less than half that of Bulgaria's, currently the least economically developed EU member. Without adequate preparation on the part of the EU and its leading member states, Ukraine's accession will transform current EU beneficiaries into donors, obliged to support the new entrant. This is likely the most significant challenge the EU has faced since 2004 when the Union expanded to include ten new countries.

Preparing for Ukraine's integration into the EU will necessitate large-scale reforms, including those related to common agricultural policy, the redistribution of structural funds, representation in the European Parliament, portfolios within the European Commission, changes to decision-making rules, and unanimity in foreign policy primarily regarding the Union’s Eastern borders.

Germany, if not the key player, is certainly one of the most important when it comes to the functioning of the European Union and has consistently supported Ukraine's integration from the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion. However, Germany will also be tasked with advancing reforms within the EU before the Union embarks on new expansion. The report's authors point out that there is a debate within Germany regarding Ukraine's membership prospects.

The question of whether Ukraine will adhere to democratic principles and not deviate from them, as is happening in Hungary and Poland, remains a valid concern. Slovakia and Bulgaria have also exhibited a limited commitment to European values. As a result, a substantial bloc of countries in Eastern Europe may emerge, simultaneously being recipients of assistance from older EU members while challenging EU institutions and principles. This underscores the need to change the decision-making procedure at the EU level, with German politicians actively advocating for a shift from the current principle of unanimity, where any EU member has veto power, to decision-making by qualified majority (Re:Russia has previously reported on the debate surrounding this key political reform of the European Union).

The cost of incorporating Ukraine into the EU is also an important issue for Germany. Germany is a major net contributor to the EU, and the burden of socio-economic convergence will largely fall on the German economy.

Moreover, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to the CEPA report, has prompted a reevaluation of France's foreign policy stance. Today, Paris is one of the most ardent supporters of Kyiv, firmly backing Ukraine's EU and NATO membership aspirations. At the security forum in Bratislava in May 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron stated that Europe needs not expansion but reunification, making the integration processes of Ukraine, Moldova, and the Balkan countries a priority. However, both France and Germany are in favour of reforming the decision-making procedure at the EU level to limit the influence of countries experiencing democratic backsliding and to make foreign policy decisions more dynamic.

Poland has been Ukraine's most consistent and steadfast partner in countering Russian aggression. Warsaw has also consistently supported the 'open door' policy toward its Eastern neighbours. However, Poland has criticised European bureaucrats for their lack of specificity in the European Neighborhood Policy when it comes to incentivising greater institutional integration with the EU.

Further, while Poland sees Ukraine's European integration as strengthening its own position, Ukraine's accession to the EU must safeguard the interests of Poland's agricultural sector. Polish farmers and Ukrainian companies will compete directly in the European market, and subsidies and infrastructure grants are more likely to benefit the weaker Ukrainian economy than Polish agrarians.

Internal Opposition and Three Constituent Parts

However, beyond these structural challenges and prospects, all three countries will face pressure from internal opposition and domestic political challenges. In Germany, there is evidence of Euroscepticism, wariness toward Ukraine, and, consequently, relative sympathy toward Russia, demonstrated by both the far left and far right. Moreover, within the German government coalition, there is currently no solid consensus on the Ukrainian issue: the senior coalition party, the Social Democrats, advocates for a more gradual integration of Ukraine, while the Greens, on the contrary, are the driving force behind the Ukrainian agenda in Germany and in pan-European institutions.

In France, President Macron's centrist government also faces pressure from both sides of the opposition, primarily from the nationalists led by Marine Le Pen. However, French communists have also suggested taking Russia's interests into account, while conservative Gaullists have been leaning towards greater isolation from the European community. Given that the admission of a new EU member will require a referendum or parliamentary vote, the actual distribution of party forces will play a crucial role.

In Poland, support for Ukraine is strong among both liberals and conservatives. However, the political dynamics suggest that to maintain its dominance, the Law and Justice Party may need to form a coalition with nationalists after the elections in October 2023. These nationalists are sceptical of both Ukraine and European unity. In this case, we should expect that the Polish government will be less demanding regarding the acceleration of Ukraine's integration into the EU.

The future process of Ukraine's integration into the EU raises three types of questions that need to be addressed, not so much by Ukraine itself, but by its senior partners within the European Union, the CEPA experts summarise. First, there is the question of speed. Both Paris and Berlin, although they strategically support integration, are in no hurry to take real steps in this direction due to the significant military-political uncertainty. Conversely, Warsaw has declared this issue both urgent and a priority. Second, there is the question of the strategic consequences of Ukraine's integration. Germany is concerned about the economic burden, France worries about the stability of the intra-European market and Ukraine's steadfastness in upholding democratic values, while Poland sees the long-term benefits of increased security on the eastern borders outweighing agricultural sector concerns. Third, there is the question of institutions. Ukraine's admission will clearly be preceded by a reform of decision-making rules at the EU level and another round of rethinking the balance of power between national governments and pan-European institutions.

Moreover, considering the current circumstances, Ukraine's inclusion in the EU is unlikely to occur within standard or even unconventional but familiar frameworks of Eurointegration scenarios. It is evident that this process must be synchronised and coordinated with a comprehensive 'Marshall Plan' for the post-conflict reconstruction of Ukraine. In this case, it makes more sense to understand the process as a combination of three components: internal Ukrainian reforms, a new 'Marshall Plan' for Ukraine, and an adapted Eurointegration process tailored to the specific Ukrainian situation, which includes significant reforms within the EU itself.