EU Enlargement Policy on Ukraine: A Challenge to Its Unity

The European Union as the largest regional organization in the European region, has an enlargement policy that aims to expand the territory of the European Union so that it will automatically establish broader cooperation. This expansion has brought the European Union to be much larger, from what was once only six founding countries now has 27 member countries. For a country to be part of the European Union, it must register and then undergo a number of procedures after the registration has been approved by the European Council.

Brussels has reached a new consensus since February of last year: the European Union must expand. Formerly unconcerned with expansion, members of the European Union (EU) are now seriously considering admitting newcomers like Ukraine, Moldova, and other Western Balkan nations.

As one of the major candidates, Ukrainians are unified in their desire to join the EU. In August 2023, more than 80% of Ukrainians supported joining.  Ukrainian officials have consistently indicated that they intend to join the EU within two years, regardless of whether the nation wins the conflict with Russia. European Union is practically unified in its support for Ukraine’s future in Europe. However, all parties should be mindful of underestimating the scale of the challenges they face.

A Challenge to EU’s Unity

The enlargement of EU membership is a policy set out in the Mastrciht Treaty. It aims to increase economic cooperation and uphold democratic values in the European region. But the enlargement was not as easy and simple as envisioned. Decision-making over EU enlargement is a two-edged sword. As a 27-member group, the bloc occasionally struggles to take action. The convoluted policy-making process has introduced additional challenges to the integration process. Complicated policy-making results in the length of the integration process. It has also led to a decline in the credibility of the European enlargement policy itself where the value of membership is higher than the cooperation. 

While it helps member states to reflect their national interests onto the accession process, it may also weaken aspirants’ belief in the mechanism’s meritocratic and unfair nature. For example, membership discussions with Turkey have been delayed since 2005, and the resulting decrease in trust between Turkey and the EU, this is a clear example. Another example is the EU’s increasingly strained relationship with Western Balkan candidate countries.

The obstacles that the EU will face if it admits Ukraine are as enormous. If this happens, it will be an extraordinary test of Europe’s political, social, and economic cohesiveness. Accommodating Ukraine would necessitate significant reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy, the distribution of structural and cohesion funds, the allocation of seats in the European Parliament, portfolios in the European Commission, qualified majority voting practices, and the current requirement for unanimity in foreign policy. 

Changes to other policy areas, such as migration and asylum, require the backing of a “qualified majority” of EU members, which means approval by at least 15 nations representing at least 65% of the bloc’s population. The limits of this political calculus were shown last week when Germany approved reforms to the new migrant regulations. However, Italy, the EU’s largest country, stated that it will withdraw immediately from the pact, leaving the arrangement unresolved. Under the existing structure, Ukraine, with a population of more than 40 million, would be one of the most politically influential countries in the EU, implying that the number of member states increases the possibility of veto players obstructing decisions.

Then followed the proposal to eliminate unanimity and recalculate the number of qualified majority votes to ensure the enlarged EU retains the “capacity to act.” Controversially, the plan would make it more difficult for major countries like France and Germany to oppose an agreement. However, such reforms would need amendments to the bloc’s constitution and the consent of member states that would lose influence as a result of the restructuring. Again, this will be a challenge for EU unity.

Then there is the question of how to divide EU funds to address deeper economic disparities. Most of the EU member candidates currently in the queue have lower per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) than the bloc’s poorest member state, Bulgaria – and with around a third of the EU budget currently allocated to agricultural subsidies, the arrival of an agricultural powerhouse, Ukraine, would radically alter the current pattern of subsidy distribution.

Another challenge came last month when Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary issued a unilateral ban on Ukrainian wheat in order to safeguard their own growers from a potential price reduction. This suggests a rough path ahead. Significant institutional, financial, and regulatory adjustments will be required to adapt to the new reality. Ukraine is a large country with significant agricultural interests. And the concept that the EU would be able to solve the question of Ukraine’s membership through a fully integrated EU agriculture policy will be a significant challenge.

Even with prior experience, there remains sensitivity over commercial concerns with Ukraine. Tensions between Ukraine and Europe over agriculture are nothing new, but one can only image the issues that European farmers would confront when the Western Balkans and Ukraine, among other nations, become fundamental parts of the EU. 

In addition to the new problems that Ukraine’s membership would bring, the idea of enlargement also poses a challenge to the unity of the EU judging by the varied responses of member states, one of which is Germany.

Although Germany has expressed strong support for Ukraine’s candidacy to join the European Union since the start of Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, German leaders are torn between the moral and geopolitical imperative to support Ukraine and concerns about the political, fiscal, and social pressures that expanded membership would bring to the EU and to Germany itself. 

Thus, while the German foreign policy community recognizes the need of a European orientation for Ukraine, they underscore that Ukraine must satisfy the same severe conditions as all other candidates. Many Germans, however, are concerned about democratic backsliding, similar to what is happening in Hungary and Poland. As a result, Berlin intends to walk a fine line, understanding that failed Ukrainian integration will undermine Europe’s integrity from within, while failure to keep its promises to Ukraine will undermine Europe’s international credibility and resilience in the face of authoritarian threats.

At the end, the idea of EU enlargement on Ukrainian is a challenge both for Ukraine as a prospective member and for the EU itself. Many changes need to be made and will occur along with the realization of the enlargement idea. As the largest supranational organization in the world and membered by large countries, the presence of Ukraine with its various national issues will pose a threat to the unity of the European Union that has been aspired to.

[Photo by Defense of Ukraine, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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