(Analysis) EU Candidate Status for Ukraine and Moldova: Political Signal or Geostrategic Move?

Vitalii Rishko

Leaders of the EU made a very consequential decision on 23rd June to grant Ukraine and Moldova official status of candidate for EU membership. The potential granting of candidate status prompted heated debate in the EU’s political circles. Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine demonstrated the failure of EU’s policy regarding its eastern neighborhood. This policy was based on the arrangement of so-called “buffer zones” of friendly states, without hindering Russia’s core interests explicitly. Expansion without enlargement has shown that such a strategy can neither satisfy the geopolitical goals of the EU, nor ensure the security of the Union. The bloc cannot rely solely on its soft and transformative power. Therefore, the EU is likely to return to its strongest geopolitical tool – enlargement. Though, before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the issue of granting candidate status to any country of the Associated Trio (Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine) was not being discussed, let alone the prospects of a new wave of EU enlargement.

Rethinking the EU Policy Towards Eastern Partnership Countries

For quite a long time, Eastern European countries, such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have been developing their cooperation with the EU in the framework of Eastern Partnership. The EU and these countries managed to sign Association Agreements and established the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas. These efforts are aimed at internal transformations of EU neighbors that will allow them to fulfill criteria for potential membership in the Union. Nevertheless, there was relatively limited engagement between the EU and these countries, owing partly to Russia’s claim to “privileged spheres of interest” in the post-Soviet space and also to the lack of the EU’s strategic vision. Consequently, the EU’s goals in this region are unclear as there are no consistent policy in this respect, and one could hardly predict what the EU was intending to do. This begs the question of whether the EU is planning to challenge Russia directly to retake the initiative in this region by acceleration of the integration of Ukraine and Moldova into the bloc or will Brussels keep maintaining the status quo and sticking to the “buffer zone” approach? Anyway, the Post-Soviet space will remain an area of geopolitical contestation between the European Union and Russia.

Russia’s military involvement in Georgia in 2008 and invasion of Ukraine in 2014 have further raised questions about whether the EU is ready to respond firmly in order to strengthen its own influence in these countries. It turned out that in 2014 Russia was ready to use force in order to preserve control over its sphere of “vital interests” while the EU was, to a large extent, divided in its response to Russia. A new critical challenge that the EU faces is Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which requires the unified position of all member states. Ukraine applied for EU membership during the first days of Russia’s large-scale invasion and other countries of the Associated Trio, Georgia and Moldova, did the same.

The context of the Russo-Ukrainian War revitalized the EU’s enlargement agenda. However, before the EU Commission issued its recommendation to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, certain member states were pushing for the establishment of a framework that would include EU neighbors. For instance, Emmanuel Macron suggested to create a “European Political Community,” which would be a club of the EU member states, its neighbors and non-EU members. The neighbors of the EU opposed this initiative because they thought it would serve as a substitute for candidate status and EU membership. EU leaders responded to the pressure by reassuring that the platform was not intended to serve as an alternative to EU membership. The goal is to strengthen political dialogue and cooperation, particularly in the area of international security. The EU has decided to act after almost a decade of ambiguous policies towards Eastern European countries.

Earlier, the EU stuck to the so-called “Open Doors Policy” and avoided any concrete statements on potential membership of these countries. Without exaggeration, the EU has taken a serious decision to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. It also promised the same status for Georgia when it fulfills all the necessary preconditions. One of them is strengthening Georgia’s political institutions, which seem fairly fragile. There are also accusations of fraud, intimidation, vote-buying, cronyism and police harassment in Georgia. Also, the EU is concerned about civil liberties, the influence of oligarchs on politics and the freedom of the media. It is therefore necessary to understand why this decision was made and what the consequences are for both the EU and these countries.

The EU’s Profile: Commitment to Defend Human Rights and Democracy

First of all, this decision was made in order to send a signal to Russia, as it means that the EU recognizes Ukraine and Moldova to be a part of the European family, not a distant relative as Moscow would want. Practically, the EU is shifting from its inconsistent stance on the integration of the Associated Trio countries and conveying a clear message that they will never be part of Russia. By sending this signal, the EU is stating that it is ready to support Ukraine in its efforts to counter Russian aggression and to protect the core values of a rules-based international order. By sending this signal, the EU is stating that it is ready to support Ukraine in its efforts to counter Russian aggression and to protect the core values of a rules-based international order. By granting candidate status to Moldova, the EU reaffirmed its commitment to support Chisinau considering the background of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. This is especially relevant because of the occupied territory of Transnistria, where according to various sources some 2000 military personnel of the Russian Federation are present. Concerns over Transnistria were also expressed in the MEPs statements, where they stressed the serious provocations and security incidents in Moldova. As a result, the EU pledged to support these countries as much as needed, making this the strongest response to Russian actions since 2008. As a result, the EU pledged to support these countries as much as needed, making this the strongest response to Russian actions since 2008 by imposing unprecedented sanctions and pressure on Putin, freezing Russian assets and providing military assistance to Ukraine. As the Ukrainian people demonstrated their willingness to fight for the free and democratic future of their state, the EU cannot remain silent.

The role of the core values the EU is pursuing and their impact on decision-making cannot be overestimated in its relations with any country, considering the EU’s strong profile in democracy promotion, protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. In this context, it is worth mentioning the visit of Olaf Scholz, Emmanuel Macron, Mario Draghi and Klaus Iohannis to Ukraine on 16th of June. They were able to see with their own eyes the consequences of Russia’s invasion on the liberated areas of the Kyiv region. It is likely that the EU leaders in Irpin, Ukraine felt the atrocities and human rights violations committed by Russia, which could have influenced their positions in favor of granting candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. 

The Role of Public Opinion and Pressure on the EU Member States

Along with the need to send a signal to Russia, the EU’s commitment to democracy and preserving human rights, there is another critical aspect that could shape the EU’s decision – public opinion within the Union. It was not just the EU leaders who saw the evidence of war crimes committed in Ukraine. The public support increased after the EU leaders visited liberated Irpin in the Kyiv region. Even before the trip of the European politicians to Kyiv, the whole world, and the citizens of the EU, were shocked by the photos shared on the Internet that showed hundreds of innocent civilians that were tortured and killed. In this respect, it is noteworthy to mention the survey conducted among EU citizens by Eurobarometer in April 2022. As a whole, Europeans are of the opinion that the EU has been strong (79%) and united (63%) as well as quick (58%) in responding to the war. Most respondents embrace unwavering support for Ukraine as 80% approve the financial support provided to Ukraine and 66% agree that “Ukraine should join the EU when it is ready.” In addition, 71% believe that Ukraine is part of the European family and 89% feel sympathy towards Ukrainians. In April the level of public support for Ukraine’s integration into the EU was probably at its highest. Such strong support could be a result of popular outcry regarding Russia’s actions and a widespread sympathy towards Ukrainians. The EU’s decision of granting candidate status could also be driven by the significant pressure of public opinion. The creative strategy of Volodymyr Zelenskyy should also be mentioned as his approach has thus far been on delivering online speeches to the parliaments of various countries, including those of EU member states. In his appeals, he emphasized the need for Ukraine’s fast-track membership in the EU and the granting of candidate status as a first step towards it.

Towards Greater Europe: von der Leyen’s “Geopolitical Commission” and Support of the EU Institutions

It is pertinent to note the commitment of top EU politicians to this decision as they are the ones who were most active in pushing the agenda and course of action that was being taken by the EU. First of all, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, played a major role.

Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective. We want them to live with us the European dream

European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, Source: Deutsche Welle June 17, 2022

The European Commission has always been a key institution of the EU that drives major changes and policies of the Union. Von der Leyen’s ambitions to increase the EU’s role on the international stage can also be explained by her strong position with regard to granting candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. Furthermore, it is also consistent with the remarks she made after being appointed European Commission President that instead of a “political Commission” as Junker had, von der Leyen will lead a “geopolitical Commission.” Such a take on the EU’s global role has a direct influence on the EU’s Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, as well as the EU’s Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement. Von der Leyen’s desire to strengthen the EU’s geopolitical standing clash with Russia’s claims over countries that Moscow believes to be its “near abroad.” And it was not only von der Leyen who supported the EU’s decision. President of the European Council, Charles Michel, was also supportive in his speeches regarding granting candidate status. For instance, he mentioned that this is going to be an unprecedented event in European history with the EU making such a strong geopolitical move in order to strengthen security and stability across the continent. In addition, Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament, urged the EU to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova in response to the autocratic threat. This shows that the EU’s main institutions, the European Commission, European Council and European Parliament, have backed this critical step.

As opposed to 2014, the EU is now willing to demonstrate its ability to carry out proactive policy towards its eastern neighborhood. A key question is whether the EU will be unified enough and able to find the “power” it needs to project its influence on Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. Specifically, it raises doubts considering the internal crises that the EU faces right now with regard to energy crisis, Brexit outcomes, and democracy backsliding in certain member states. Furthermore, the decision to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova was made against the backdrop of rising tensions between the U.S. and China. Candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova can be regarded as the EU’s attempt of achieving strategic autonomy in the context of a fragmented international order and geopolitical contest between major powers, by strengthening its eastern flank. Such move can be regarded as a geopolitical maneuver that would help the EU to expand its influence and enhance its position in the international system.

Advocacy of Integration Processes by Poland and Baltic States

Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia could have a major impact on the EU decision as the countries are often referred to as the “New Europe” which tend to position themselves as supporters of European integration. Their position can be explained by the rooted perceptions of Russian menace that these countries are facing because of the close geographical proximity of Russia’s borders. Moreover, besides the constant threats coming from Russia, these states are also exposed to the harmful actions of Belarus and its autocratic regime. A case in point is the recent artificial border crisis, which might be viewed as a hybrid tool used to threaten Poland, the Baltic states, and the EU in general. Overall, EU enlargement has been a key topic on the agenda of these countries in order to boost stability and security on their borders. Not to mention Poland’s role in creating the Eastern Partnership to bring eastern neighbors closer to the EU.

In a practical sense, before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine started, Polish President Andrzej Duda and President of Lithuania Gitanas Nauseda visited Kyiv to deliver the message that their countries will do everything in their power to ensure that Ukraine receives candidate status. In addition, the Polish president paid a few visits to some European capitals in order to persuade member states that were hesitant about granting candidate status.

Financial background of the EU decision, Ukraine’s Post-War Reconstruction and support of Moldova

Another significant factor that impacted the EU’s decision was the necessity to provide increased economic support and investments for Ukraine and Moldova. Providing additional funding to Ukraine and Moldova not only facilitates reforms but is also considered essential to minimizing the negative impact of the Russian invasion. A candidate state of the EU is entitled to additional financial and institutional assistance through the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA). A basic purpose of the IPA is to speed up the transfers of EU funds, which in turns ensures reform stability. Moreover, considering the fact that Ukraine’s economy and infrastructure are severely damaged as a result of ongoing aggression, candidate status was thought to be an effective step to support Ukraine’s economic and financial sectors, as well as to help rebuild the country after the war is over. Candidate status, in turn, is seen as helpful in attracting more investments, which the country urgently needs now. For Moldova, the aftershocks of the war also caused immense damage to various sectors of its economy. Candidacy, therefore, could be viewed as a vital step in supporting the fragile economy of Moldova by utilizing the IPA and unblocking additional sources of financial assistance to Chisnau.

There is not a single social or economic area that would not be affected by the war. Rising prices for oil products and natural gas, difficulties with the export of agricultural products, the closure of trade routes are the consequences of the war.

Maia Sandu, June 24, 2022. Source: Info Tag

What Is Next: Fast-Track Membership for Kyiv and Chisinau or a “Balkan Trap”?

Upon the EU’s decision to grant candidate status, the speed of the integration process will depend on how successfully Ukraine and Moldova implement necessary reforms and carry out internal transformations in order to move to the next stage – opening of the accession talks. Nevertheless, the ball is not only in Ukraine’s or Moldova’s court, as much will also depend on the consensus and readiness of the EU to go further. In a nutshell, the political will of the EU member states is going to be a decisive factor for the possibility of fast-tracking membership to Ukraine and Moldova. Indeed, these factors raise the question of whether the EU will be able to absorb new members in the near future. That is why many Ukrainian and Moldovan experts are afraid of falling into the so-called “Balkan trap.” 

Before giving candidate status, international experts, politicians, and diplomats were worried about the differentiation of the enlargement process. This is in light of the fact that Western Balkan countries have not yet achieved success in their integration into the EU despite receiving the same status. The fact that any country can veto the EU decision to open accession talks makes the process time consuming, as it was in the case of Bulgaria’s veto regarding North Macedonia.

The experiences of North Macedonia and other states indicate that the issue of the EU’s readiness to accept new members is truly critical. In the short-term, candidate status is not a panacea, because accession talks can begin in 10 years or so. One needs to remember that candidate status does not guarantee accession. To a large extent, the European integration of Ukraine and Moldova will depend on the success of the Western Balkans as these two processes seem to be intertwined. For instance, Olaf Scholz was talking about the possibility of the accession of the Western Balkans and other candidates, including Ukraine and Moldova. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was skeptical even about candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova.

Furthermore, Rutte was saying that granting this status would be “unfair” with regard to Balkan states who have been waiting for such a status much longer. Another key factor that might be a problem when taking into account the experience of the Western Balkans is the size of territory. As far as the EU is not ready to integrate small countries such as Montenegro, Albania and Northern Macedonia, integration of bigger states seems to be complicated indeed. When it comes to Ukraine, for example, the process can be difficult indeed as it will require additional reforms within the EU that can take time. Hence, fast-track membership for Ukraine and Moldova is difficult to imagine in the short term. In the end, it is the progress in reforms by Kyiv and Chisnau and the political will of member states that are going to be decisive factors for the future enlargement. Despite this, the EU’s decision seems to be more than just a political gesture.

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