21.12.23 Review

Accession Movement: The issue of Ukraine's accession to the EU exposes the fault lines between different groups of countries within the European community

The number of those who support and oppose admitting new members to the EU in the current climate is roughly evenly distributed, polls show. Respondents from the 'new' EU member states are more likely to support enlargement, while residents of the 'old' countries are more likely to oppose it. According to the 'newcomers', Ukraine's accession to the EU will strengthen their national security, solidify the pan-European economy and enhance their own influence in the European community. In contrast, the 'old-timers' see Ukrainian membership as a threat to European security, with costs for both their own and the pan-European economy, and the potential for a reduction in their political role in the EU. In general, the balance of European public opinion demonstrates a slight bias in favour of Ukraine's admission. However, even supporters of Ukraine's integration are guided by political rather than pragmatic considerations and anticipate it as more of a cost than a benefit. The process of Ukraine's integration will pose an unprecedented historical challenge for the EU, requiring incredible flexibility and important decisions from EU leadership and members. Most likely, it will also lead to changes in the architecture of the union itself. Nevertheless, looking a few decades down the line, the success of this process could turn into a real historical breakthrough for the EU.

Despite the EU's historic decision to start accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, the process itself promises to be extremely complex and will require incredible flexibility and important decisions from the EU leadership and members. Never before has the EU welcomed a country so large and yet so unprepared for accession, and also engaged in a large-scale defensive war. The tension between the political imperative to start accession negotiations, which is driven by the need to support Ukraine, and the costs of the process is clearly reflected in European opinion polls.

Right before the December EU summit, at which Brussels took the historic decision to start negotiations, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) conducted a large-scale sociological survey on the accession of new countries in six EU states (Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Poland and Romania). Summarising the results of the survey, the ECFR experts concluded that the residents of EU countries are more favourable towards Ukraine's accession and even Moldova's, while they are more negative about the prospects of other candidates' accession (Balkan countries and Georgia). In reality, however, the survey data can be interpreted as evidence of the increasing polarisation of public opinion among EU residents regarding the membership of new countries.

First of all, in response to the general question of whether new countries should or should not be admitted to the union at the present moment, the opinions of those surveyed were almost equally divided: 35% in favour and 37% against (15% expressed indifference and 13% could not make up their minds). At the same time, the survey data shows a growing polarisation between 'old' and 'new' members of the EU on the issue of its enlargement. While about 50% of respondents from the 'new' EU countries represented in the survey — Poland and Romania — are in favour of enlargement (48% in Poland and 51% in Romania), less than a third of citizens from the 'old' part of the bloc hold the same opinion (29% in Denmark, 28% each in Austria and Germany, and 27% in France). In an previously published ECFR report titled 'Catch-27: The contradictory thinking about enlargement in the EU', the experts noted a growing concern in the EU about the consequences of expansion and the community's ability to integrate new countries.

Overall, 37% of respondents supported Ukraine's membership in the EU, 33% were against, and 30% did not express a definite position. The leaders of support in this case are Denmark (50%) and Poland (47%). The Baltic countries traditionally demonstrate high solidarity with Ukraine, along with both richer 'old' countries (Denmark) and poorer 'new' ones. Opposition to Ukraine's accession in these countries stands at 20%. In Germany, support for and opposition to Ukraine's accession are almost equal (37% vs. 39%). In Romania, there is also parity, while in France and Austria the share of opponents is higher, with Austria having an absolute majority of 52% against Ukraine’s accession, with just 28% in favour.

But even those who support Ukraine's accession do so for political rather than pragmatic reasons. This is clearly evident from the responses to questions about the consequences of this accession. Only when asked about the effect of Ukraine's acceptance on the political influence of the EU in the world, did approximately an equal number of respondents, around 30%, point to both positive and negative effects. In the other two areas — economy and security — a larger share of respondents foresee negative consequences rather than positive ones.

What effect will Ukraine's accession to the EU have on the listed areas?, % of those surveyed

The greatest concerns among Europeans are specifically related to the impact of accession on security: 45% of respondents believe that it will have a negative impact on the security of the European Union and 39%, on the security of their country. Respondents in Austria and Germany (47-63%) are most concerned about this issue, while those in Denmark and France are less concerned (37–47%). In Eastern European countries, which are closer to Russia and the theatre of war, the situation is different. In Romania, the number of those surveyed who believe that the impact of Ukrainian accession on security will be positive and negative is equal. In Poland, the opinion that it will increase the security of both Poland and the EU clearly prevails.

Moreover, the majority in Poland and Romania believe that Ukraine's accession will improve the EU's economy: 37–43% compared to 27–28% who think it will worsen. However, when it comes to the consequences for their national economies, the groups of optimists and pessimists in these countries are equal. Residents of the 'old' EU countries, especially Denmark, Austria and Germany, foresee mainly negative consequences for both the union economy (40-53%) and their national economies (albeit to a lesser extent, 36-39%). The population of "old" countries understands well that they will bear the brunt of the integration costs.

People in Poland also believe that Ukraine's accession will increase Poland's influence in the EU (34%); residents of Germany, France and Austria, on the contrary, believe that their countries' influence in the EU will decrease (27-31%). Meanwhile, in Poland, Romania, and Denmark, there is a prevailing opinion that the role of the EU in the world will increase as a result (31–43%). In Austria and Germany, a slight majority confidently anticipates the opposite (42% and 32%), foreseeing colossal difficulties in this process.

The future EU accession of Moldova and Montenegro is supported by 30% of those surveyed across the six countries, slightly more than those who oppose this process (25-28%). For Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Georgia, North Macedonia, the support group ranges 20-28%, which is less than the group of those who oppose accession (27-37%). However, the absolute leader in terms of apathy is Turkey, whose accession negotiations Brussels started 20 years ago. 51% of those surveyed oppose its accession to the EU.

The differences in the approaches of the 'old' and 'new' EU countries to the issue of Ukraine's admission reflect the tensions within the union, which have long been a concern of European politicians. On the one hand, the obligations to support new members primarily fall on the rich 'old' European countries; on the other hand, the faction of the 'new' countries is expanding and gaining increasing influence in EU institutions. Moreover, representatives of these countries periodically engage in political confrontation with the 'old' countries and often block their decisions (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia). Therefore, France and Germany currently view the accession process of Ukraine and Moldova as an opportunity to embark on EU reform, including reforming the decision-making mechanism, contemplating abandoning the principle of consensus (Re:Russia has previously written about these political challenges in detail). 

Today, Ukraine's admission to the EU appears to be a daunting task and threatens to alter the very architecture of the community. At the same time, if it happens within the next two decades, it will be another breakthrough in European integration. This pattern is characteristic of the entire 70-year history of this process — exceptionally challenging and lengthy periods of ‘digesting’ problems and obstacles are occasionally punctuated by historical innovative successes.