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Volodymyr Zelensky and Ursula von der Leyen smile at each other and embrace.
Volodymyr Zelensky and Ursula von der Leyen at a joint press conference in Kyiv. EPA/Sergey Dolzhenko

Ukraine and Moldova have taken a huge step towards EU membership – but these hazards lie ahead

The European Commission has confirmed its support for opening the formal accession process for Ukraine and Moldova to become members of the European Union and for other nations in the western Balkans to move forward with their own bids.

The wider context of war in Ukraine is a potent setup for commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s preference for a geopolitical union and a stronger voice for Europe in the world. Enlargement into the east is seen as a “geostrategic investment”.

The initial reaction of member states has, however, been mixed. Finland and Lithuania, which border Russia, are supportive. Germany and some other key players prefer to offer an observer rather than full membership status for the foreseeable future.

Others are more overtly opposed. Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, says he intends to veto any attempt to start negotiations with Ukraine in 2024. Although Orbán’s stance might partly be explained by his friendliness with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, he also opposes rules that restrict non-Ukrainian language education in Ukrainian schools.

These rules were mainly designed with cultural and educational de-Russification in mind following the Russian invasion but they also had a negative impact on minority Hungarian communities in Ukraine. Although Ukraine has already stated its willingness to compromise on the thorny issue, it’s evidence of how national grievances and agendas among individual member states can represent a significant stumbling block for any candidate country on the road to EU membership.

Stretched framework

There are also concerns about whether the existing EU institutional framework is capable of absorbing new member states. For example, Ukraine would be the largest EU member state in territorial terms but it would also be the poorest economically. That has considerable implications for the EU’s budget and the functioning of the single market.

Without institutional reform, Ukraine is set to become one of the EU budget’s biggest beneficiaries. It has farmlands eligible for subsidies from the common agricultural policy that cover an area larger than the whole of Italy. Ukraine’s accession under these conditions would seriously undermine the competitiveness of agricultural production in current member states.

Some central and eastern member states have already had to be compensated for their inability to sell their own grain when Ukrainian agricultural products flooded their markets. These countries will be highly reluctant to allow Ukraine’s accession without assurances on protecting their economies.

Reform itself would also be potentially divisive among EU member states and debates on the matter could further hold up accession.

New rules

Ukraine and Moldova will be among the first nations to start accession under a new methodology for the process. This reform reflects states’ concerns about the suitability of the accession methodology used in previous waves of enlargement, which came to a head when North Macedonia and Albania were refused candidate status in 2019.

Meeting pre-accession requirements under the previously used negotiating approach and over a decade of subsequent membership did little to resolve endemic rule of law and corruption issues in member states that joined after 2004. As a result, EU leaders lost trust in the transformative potential of accession processes. When member states that had been admitted under this process turned out not to be ready for membership, negotiations with other candidates stalled in the second half of the 2010s. The new accession methodology aims to restore that trust by making the requirements of the accession process more credible, transparent and predictable.

During accession, a candidate country must adapt their legal system to conform to EU laws. All EU law is divided into thematic chapters within negotiations. Accession only happens if a country meets conditions in relation to all of these chapters. The new methodology emphasises the rule of law as a priority.

Candidates must meet the EU’s requirements on the rule of law, economic criteria, public procurement and public administration reform – grouped together as “fundamental conditions” – before they even start to show they’ve met other criteria. Negotiations in relation to these fundamental principles do not close when related criteria are met. These issues remain under constant monitoring under the whole of the accession process.

Under the new rules, if a candidate country is stalling or backsliding on its reforms, progress can be undone – and chapters re-opened for negotiation. This means that candidates cannot treat aligning their legal systems to EU standards as a tick-box exercise. Of course there are still no guarantees against democratic backsliding after accession (as seen in the case of Hungary and Poland) but this new rule should go some way to making post-membership backsliding harder by ensuring the substantial adoption of EU norms during the negotiation process.

Ursula von der Leyen speaking at a lectern in front of a screen that bears the words 'EU Enlargement Package 2023'
Von der Leyen speaks in Brussels. EPA

The methodology also strongly encourages member states to take ownership of the process. Previously, accession negotiations were seen as a primarily technical process managed by the European Commission. The new approach encourages member states and EU institutions to convene regular summits with candidate countries to enable closer scrutiny.

Phased opt-ins in areas where candidate states make exceptional progress will also now be possible. That means that they could be able to become members of certain European Union policy areas before full membership. Moldova, for example, is currently in the process of joining the EU roaming area.

What’s next?

The political will seems to be there on all sides for Ukraine and Moldova to go ahead. And all appear to see the need to act quickly. There is palpable concern about Turkey, Russia and Iran seeking to entrench their influence in other potential candidate countries such as Georgia and Armenia. Starting negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova shows these countries that EU accession is possible.

However, every stage of the process requires a unanimous vote at the European Council. So while the commission has brought Ukraine and Moldova closer to EU membership than ever seemed possible, the speed of the next stages will be set by member state governments.

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