Is EU enlargement to Ukraine and Moldova credible?

The credibility of EU membership for Ukraine and Moldova depends on how flexible member states are with the criteria for entry and the notion of full membership. Veronica Anghel and Erik Jones, drawing on analysis of previous enlargements, show that the flexibility can be considerable

Four months after Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine, the European Union made Ukraine and Moldova candidates for membership. This is, at first sight, a puzzling decision.

If we follow the Copenhagen accession criteria, neither Ukraine nor Moldova appear close to qualifying for EU membership. Their economies are not flexible enough to compete in the single market. They struggle to ensure minority rights. They face problems promoting the rule of law, and controlling organised crime and corruption. And they are far from able to produce the legislation and reforms necessary to absorb and implement the Acquis Communautaire (the body of EU law) – not least because their governments are engaged in wartime politics. For these countries, EU membership appears decades in the future. Indeed, the decision led to speculation that it was simply an impulsive response that would lead nowhere.

According to the Copenhagen accession criteria, neither Ukraine nor Moldova appear close to qualifying for EU membership

Yet what is happening is not unprecedented. If we look back in time, we find that the EU’s enlargement to Central Eastern Europe (CEE) took place against similar benchmarks.

Changing entry requirements

Our research shows that, in many respects, the Copenhagen criteria were drafted in 1993 to prolong the accession process by establishing clear performance indicators that governments would have to meet before even starting formal membership talks. The enlargement process elaborated in Luxembourg (1997) was also measured and involved only the most qualified candidates (particularly on the economic front). The process introduced in Helsinki (1999) was quicker and more inclusive. However, it still promised that both the EU and the candidates would be prepared. Each of these agreements fell short of their stated objectives.

Less than a decade after the initial accession criteria were set, the European Council decided to enlarge the EU. Ten countries would join in 2004, including Malta and a still-divided Cyprus. Another two countries – Bulgaria and Romania – would join three years later, their membership only conditionally approved.

The essential point is that the enlargement process was a series of reactions to events – security-related events in particular. As the security imperative for EU enlargement increases, the requirements for entry tend to fall.

This makes the invitation granted to Ukraine and Moldova credible, but far from guaranteed. Moreover, this process can be transformative for the EU, even if the enlargement process is not successful.

The question is whether a similar willingness to interpret accession criteria and review what EU membership means is likely to characterise negotiations with Moldova and Ukraine.

Flexible accession

A flexible accession means looking the other way on important issues. Cyprus joined after the failure of the peace process, and Turkey gained recognition as a candidate like any other. This awkward arrangement brought important problems into the EU and also into EU-NATO relations. Nevertheless, the European Council reasoned that this compromise was better than the alternative, of holding both countries at arm’s length until the conflict between them could be resolved.

A flexible accession means looking the other way on important issues, and allows aspiring member states to actively negotiate adaptations to the enlargement criteria

Important for accession talks with Moldova and Ukraine, aspiring member states can be active negotiators in adapting enlargement criteria. The joint accession of most post-communist states was a regional goal and a collective effort, as confirmed in interviews with policy makers. Regional leaders also showed increasing frustration with the EU’s delays and appeared to be drifting away from democratisation goals. The authoritarian practices of Slovakia’s PM Vladimír Mečiar ensured that Slovakia was excluded from consideration until Mečiar was ousted in 1998. Representatives of the Polish Government had accused the European Union on several occasions of slowing up enlargement. Hungary’s PM Viktor Orbán was quoted saying in 2000 that ‘there [was] life outside the Union’.

Flexible membership

Along the way, what it means to be an EU member also changed. Some of these changes were evolving before the enlargement to CEE. Sweden ignored joining the single currency while Great Britain (and therefore also Ireland) refused to join Schengen.

Enlargement to CEE also saw the European Council assign candidate countries to different categories, with different privileges and obligations. Bulgaria and Romania accepted a Cooperation and Verification Mechanism that would ensure they would one day fully qualify in the fields of judicial reform, corruption and organised crime. Both countries are still undergoing this monitoring process, and still trying to qualify for Schengen. Remaining outside such important projects changes the nature of relationships within the EU.

This more flexible notion of membership also included a process for leaving the EU and a separate procedure for disciplining those countries that challenge the membership criteria. Neither procedure has proven effective, but both have transformed what it means to be part of the EU.

Security imperative

Time and again, the EU has promised that the countries of the Western Balkans have a membership prospect; apart from Croatia, that promise has not materialised. The difference lies in the security imperative. The EU’s historic enlargement took place against the backdrop of the Balkan wars and culminated in the immediate aftermath of NATO’s bombing of Serbia. The EU saw the enlargement process as a democratisation and stabilisation mechanism. Eastern European countries could not be allowed to fail, because this would jeopardise EU security.

The EU has made promises of membership before that have not materialised; however, it is far more likely to follow through when there is a security imperative

By the mid-2000s the threat of instability had moved to Europe’s ‘Eastern neighbourhood’. The European Council sought to address that without giving a real membership prospect. Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine brought enlargement back on to the agenda for the EU, as a stabilisation and democratisation mechanism.

Ukraine and Moldova are far from meeting the EU membership criteria. Yet, the pattern of European enlargement fails to conform either to the original goals set out by the member states or to a fixed understanding of what EU membership is. The European Council can even ignore a frozen conflict. The question is whether some form of membership is better than the alternative. For Moldova and Ukraine, that is likely to be the case.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Veronica Anghel Veronica Anghel Lecturer, Johns Hopkins University – SAIS; Max Weber Fellow, European University Institute More by this author
photograph of Erik Jones Erik Jones Professor and Director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute More by this author

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