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Quo Vadis Europa: Considering Ukraine's EU Membership

By Francesco Foti

International Affairs Analyst

Ursula von der Leyen and Volodymyr Zelenskyy | Credit: Wikimedia Commons


On the 14th of December 2023, after a fraught and tense dealing with Hungary, the EU Council gave a positive answer to Ukrainian EU dreams of starting accession talks. The result was welcomed by US President Biden’s Administration, still battling with the Congress withholding the aid package Ukraine asks for in order to keep defending itself against Russian aggression. 

Eastward enlargement posits the question over the Ukrainian capacity to achieve full membership, its place within the EU, Ukraine’s geopolitical value, and, consequently, EU’s current actorness and capacity-willingness to achieve full actorness as suggested by Joseph Nye’s 1991 theory of soft power and hard power and compatible with its supra-national status.  


The EU accession process is a complex path to full membership. The seven steps are divided into reform of the National Constitutional Court, judiciary system, fighting corruption, fighting money-laundering, adopting the anti-oligarch law, audio-visual legislation compliance, and minority rights and inclusions. While merit-based criteria should not be questioned, the 2023 EU Commission Report, closely monitoring the achievements in war time, highlighted how the candidate status “has further accelerated reform efforts”. 

These include the working of the Parliament according to EU democratic values and practices, the halted administration reforms due to the war, good digitalisation, good decentralisation in  the free territories and current efforts in the ones close to the frontier battles, the need to enforce the law and the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, reasonable cooperation with the International Criminal Court. Ukraine’s progress stands in line in judicial governance bodies and the media, while the Constitutional Court Reform is generally fair. 

Around fundamental rights, the Commission registers a general advancement according to international human rights dispositions. There is the open issue of the compliance with the Venice Commission Opinion on minority rights such as language, administration, media, and schooling, where early progress is registered. 

Freedom of expression is from moderate to less so.  

A different matter stands the achievement in anti-corruption, money-laundering, de-oligarchization, and the fight against organised crime, the sore points in Ukrainian modern-day history. According to the report, some progress is being made in these sectors. 

The report confirms that the Ukrainian trade sector is at an early stage in reforms implemented. The harmonisation with a market economy is still embryonic due to pre-dating systemic contingencies. It will be here where foreign and EU investments and loans will strive to make the difference and enhance the Ukrainian internal market and reforms as part of the broad integration process, much in the similar way Ukraine’s neighbours benefited systemically in the long-term. Trade integration is suffering due to the war and the approach by neighbours, such as Poland. According to preliminary studies, Ukraine's membership will result in the EU agricultural and budgetary being altered, therefore requiring a thorough revision to adapt the Ukrainian market into it. Poland and Ukraine should reach an agreement sponsored by Brussels and in the spirit of EU-NATO future brotherhood.

In foreign policy, Ukraine is generally complying with the EU’s approach. Ukraine’s increasing army and defence standardisation, according to Western, particularly NATO, criteria, will strengthen the Eastern flank and European security. Similarly to neighbouring Romania, Ukraine’s EU path should be tied to its NATO membership first as a needed step to revolutionise Ukraine as a country and a military power to become a valuable addition to the continental security. Additionally, the EU should strive to help develop an increasingly modernised Ukrainian military hub and factory to boost the national and regional resilience and deterrence capacity through an ad hoc scheme. However, there should be a majority rule, a common scheme/fund that bypasses Orban obstructionism that, coupled with the current US Republican hesitance to agree on it, is seriously imperilling Ukraine’s war effort and strategically helping Moscow to prolong it and get the needed time to strengthen. The unlocking of part of funds to Hungary’s Orban, a security threat to the Euro-Atlantic alliance, should not become the norm.  

Overall, drawing from the recent European Commission report, it is assumed that despite Ukraine’s efforts, due to pre-dating and current limiting factors such as Ukraine’s post-soviet system and Moscow’s aggression, the final status as a EU member state will be a complicated journey needing NATO membership status first. Ukraine will be engaged in fighting on three fronts: Moscow’s continued hostility, the results from it, and the country’s long fight against post-sovietism, a plight still looming over the politico-economic systems of former USSR EU member states. 


The time for reconstruction will see the West, the US and the EU, rival against China for exerting influence. As is the case with South-East, Central-East European countries, as Russian influence decreases, the Chinese expanding hand through investments and pivotal technology increases. The closest case study to apply regarding Ukraine is neighbouring Poland, widely perceived as a firmly Western pivot. While towards Moscow, Poland, due to territorial and historical realities, shows its utility to the Euro-Atlantic alliance, its commitment not just to decoupling but even to de-risking, the EU approach to the Chinese systemic threat as re-asserted at the last 24th Euro-Chinese Summit, seems not to be a national security priority. China seems not even to exist in the Polish narrow view of geopolitics. Unlike Lithuanian, Estonian, or Latvian critical approach to China, the Polish one is characterised by its membership in the 17+1, the Chinese project targeting pivotal Central-Eastern European countries, extolling the benefits of the Belt and Road initiative and aiming at deeper cooperation and investing in critical infrastructures. 

Investments, high and green technology, induced nationalisation, and reconstruction should be spearheaded by the US and the EU. Once again, Poland is a case in point in order to shed light on the danger of deeper ties with China, the chief originator of the much used so-called Global South narrative, which is very Russian friendly. After China threw its vital logistical support to the Russian aggression, increasing tension in terms of bilateral talks have not resulted in a policy of strategic distancing and business between the Red Dragon and the landlocked country has continued, regardless of the US concern about Chinese dual-use technology as explained in the 2023 Department of Defense Security Strategy. Re-building Ukraine in the aftermath of the war will undermine Chinese influence regionally and in investments in European infrastructures which is of critical importance in peace and war time. Ukraine has shown promising signs of wanting to hurt Moscow strategically by recently targeting two Russo-Chinese railway connections and, allegedly, the Nord-Stream pipeline before. Therefore, the US and, theoretically, the EU should anchor Ukraine firmly in the Western sphere of influence, given also the implications of Chinese regional policy.

Moreover, an increment in operability of the Middle Corridor, the trade route extending from China through Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, of which Ukraine could be a tool, and aiming at cutting through the Black Sea thanks to the its location and reaching Poland itself would not just be a boost for the Chinese market but a problem in terms of European logistical and material dependence on the Red Dragon. The prospect would be amenable to Russian interest in diversification after the damage to the Northern Route. Similarly, the development of a Black Sea trade with Chinese mastery and, arguably, Russian effort in participating in it to stay regionally relevant that excludes the US is problematic. The possibility of China increasing influence demands the US to push for an American-led strategy consistent with the goals set in the plethora of documents developing the EU’s economic security with Ukraine as a factor to it. 

Poland has been a staunch supporter of NATO member Turkey in the EU. Such military and political cooperation aims to create a safe zone in the Black Sea to counter Moscow. While Turkey’s vocal support for Ukrainian territorial integrity, the grain deal and the Bayraktar factor that helped Ukraine at the beginning of the war are valuable facts, Polish narrow appreciation of the broad Turkish foreign policy and acquiescence to Ankara’s refusal to join the West in the sanctions that help sustain Moscow, let alone Turkish confrontational policy towards NATO and EU member states, playing into the hands of not just Moscow but Beijing, should show Ukraine the limitedness of such a pro-Turkish position. Turkey’s cynicism towards the Russo-Ukrainian war and the transactional relation with NATO is, once again, proven by its refusal to let British minehunter ships intended for Ukraine use the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. 


The EU was previously unwilling to commit itself to enlargement eastward in order not to upset Moscow and not to undermine trade and energy deals as embodied by Nord Stream 2, the past Franco-German appeasement policy to Russian revanchism. The worsened EU-Russia’s relations and a degree of decoupling changed such an unrealistic middle position that posited the rationality of Moscow’s neighbourhood policy, amply demonstrated by its imperial, militaristic endeavours in Chechnya, Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine 2014. The UE and NATO increasing convergence and overreaching, both practically and theoretically as pre-viewed in the 2023 Joint Declaration and the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, in supporting Ukraine and, arguably, the whole security compact will be the deterrence Russia keeps undermining through psychological warfare and, as Moscow’s war of choice in Ukraine proved, militarily. 

Further enlargement eastward will mean to spend on the military sector, through the EU members single and broad spending according to the European Defence Agency figures, the Military Assistance Support (EUMAM), deterrence tool, within the NATO framework, to face Moscow’s hybrid hostility to the eastern flank. The Kiel Institute shows the support to Ukraineby each country. The EU and US military support should not just continue but be updated based on the war needs. Bolstering military expenditures to meet NATO 2% GDP is fundamental to keep supporting Ukraine and counter Russia’s aggressive posture. The security component to the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, as also proved by the role of the European Peace Facility and the content of the 2023 Strategic Compass, albeit with a unanimity voting rule, is a step further to the quest for full geopolitical actorness. However, given Hungary’s disruptive approach to the EU, the previously proposed majority scheme/fund for Ukraine should also pair NATO. 

The EU should strive to implement its 2023 “Approach to enhance economic security” and “risk assessments on critical technologies” and demand less compliant EU members and aspiring ones to abide by it. In conjunction with the “G7 Statement on Economic Resilience and Economic Security”, the goal is to regulate the investment ratio which, in the case of not just post-war Ukraine but weak countries within the Euro-Atlantic alliance, will help fend off unfair competition, the dual-technology threat and the divide et impera strategy pursued by China. 

As mentioned before, the problem of EU dependence on Moscow and Beijing is contentious compared to the US objective of decoupling from China and sanctioning third countries’ firms that help Moscow bypass sanctions. The Bulgaria-Hungary feud over the former’s intent to impose an extra tax on Russian gas through the Turkstream pipeline is the symptom of a typical EU problem, the unanimity rule over neuralgic subjects, in this case Bulgaria’s entry into Schengen by Moscow’s friendly Hungary, and Bulgaria’s chronic dependence on Russian gas. This divide is increasingly shaping the debate and separating the US and EU, to the benefit of the two competitors in the short-term, the Ukrainian response to Moscow, and the long-term, Chinese life-saving support for Russia’s war machine and revenues and the race for regional preeminence. Unlike the US, the EU intends to stick to de-risking to salvage its trade and investment policy to China while never daring to sanction such countries as China itself, Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan that each offer primary support to Moscow’s economy, military arsenal, geopolitical interests and war revenues. 

To compete on the world stage and respond to the Russo-Chinese threat, the EU needs to undergo a broad structural reform with a single Foreign Policy that is not a collection, usually a contradiction or a lesser accord, of the single Member States’ positions. However, without the EU hardening its approach to the Russo-Chinese axis and its aiders and proxies, the de-risking policy to China as an end in itself and not a means to decoupling along with the reluctance to sanction actors involved in helping Moscow to survive economically and not to deplete its war machine, could make Ukraine easily reliant on the former and still prey to Moscow. For example, the 2023 German National Security Strategy is reminiscent of the EU’s unwillingness to fully meet Moscow’s threat in the long-term and short-term. Therefore, about soft power, with Moscow’s decline as a lesser partner to China, the EU needs to work on decoupling and countering Chinese soft power in order to help positioning Ukraine firmly within the Western bloc. 


Granted that the US and EU need to keep supporting Ukraine against Moscow to ensure the survival of a Ukrainian State and Nation and not bend on the latter’s objective of annexing the occupied territories, the path to full EU membership appears to be a long, tortuous process requiring NATO membership invitation to materialise after the war in order to help speed it up. 


In the post-recovery phase, Ukraine, within the Western Alliance, should be viewed in the context of China’s increasing hold over critical European infrastructures. 

The EU will first need to reach NATO 2% GDP and solve the question of sanction evasion. In order to finally reach full actorness, according to Nye’s theory of hard and soft power, the EU will need to address the geopolitical impacts of the war on it before committing to undergo a profound institutional change that creates a single Foreign Policy.


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