Is the EU a Bureaucratic Nightmare or a Beacon of Freedom?
Possibly both. Ukraine’s attempt to join will answer the question.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive is drawing most of our attention right now. But there’s a second, more subtle, reorganizing of lines happening: the reimagining of Europe as a political community spurred by Ukraine’s impassioned, ideals-driven demands to join.
Very few Americans would use the word “inspiring” to describe the European Union. If we think about the EU at all, most of us share something like the dyspeptic view that prompted many Britons to want out: It’s a many-tentacled, meddlesome regulatory bureaucracy, useful in its way, perhaps, as an economic umbrella. But hardly inspirational.
But the EU looks different from Ukraine, where the idea of joining is freighted with hope and deeper meaning. In 2013, just as the Brexit debate began in London, pro-Russian Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych rescinded the country’s application for EU membership, bringing nearly a million people into the streets of Kyiv, shouting “Ukraine is Europe.” Later that winter, more than 100 protesters died for the idea. Today, polls show upward of 90 percent of Ukrainians wanting to join.
For Ukrainians, the EU is a symbol of everything they yearn for as they fight to free themselves from centuries of Russian tyranny. And after 16 months of war, their view is starting to catch on elsewhere in Europe. And so, perhaps this regulatory economic umbrella might become a beacon of democracy.
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Ukrainians have plenty of experience with the hard-headed, technically minded, regulatory side of the EU. Many people think of joining the union as binary—either you’re in or you’re out. In fact, it’s almost always a series of painstaking steps as applicant countries reform their economic and political governance to comply with EU standards. Ukraine has been moving in this direction for nearly a decade, working to ensure the rule of law and unleash a market economy.
An elaborate diplomatic process—formal agreements, mandated conditions, stepwise legal reforms—has paid off with a steady stream of EU benefits: the temporary lifting of customs duties, a free-trade agreement, visa-free travel, free cell phone roaming, and more—plus a wide array of loans and grants. The relationship has grown considerably stronger over the past 16 months of war. EU countries have sent Kyiv €53 billion in aid, military and nonmilitary, and welcomed some 5 million Ukrainian refugees with social services, health benefits and access to the European labor market.
Some skeptics in Brussels worry about a phased approach to enlargement. “We’ve seen that before,” one member of the European Parliament told me last month. “We call it a step toward accession, but in fact, over time, it becomes permanent second-class citizenship.” Turkey has been working toward EU membership since 1987. Some Western Balkans countries since 2003. No nation has been admitted since 2013. And it’s no secret that some Western European powers have been hesitant to open the club to new members, particularly countries from what was once in the Soviet sphere of influence.
Maybe Ukraine will be different. Just days after the Russian invasion, President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for an expedited path to membership and Brussels responded in record time, granting Kyiv official candidate status. Now Ukraine is working to fulfill seven fine-grained conditions for the start of accession talks: required procedures for selecting judges, including all-important constitutional court judges; staffing for institutions to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials; a plan to fight money laundering; safeguards to curb the influence of oligarchs; ensuring media freedom; and protections for national minorities.
The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, has passed a raft of new legislation to comply with these conditions. Powerful civil society groups are monitoring progress and holding lawmakers’ feet to the fire. More than a dozen high-profile anti-corruption cases have been fast-tracked through the courts to show the world that the new institutions work. Kyiv is hopeful that accession talks can begin before the end of the year.
But this is the start, not the end, of the process. Even in the best of circumstances, accession talks traditionally take between five and seven years—and Europe’s real concerns about admitting Ukraine go deeper than those seven conditions.
The first concern is economic. Ukraine would enter the EU as the poorest member of the club, with less than one-tenth the per capita GDP of Germany or France. As a heavily agricultural country, it would be entitled to Europe’s lavish agricultural subsidies. And even if other resources—private investment, appropriated Russian assets—can be brought to bear for postwar reconstruction, bringing Ukraine up to European standards of living will wreak havoc on the EU budget for decades to come, with particularly heavy burdens for the poorer member countries that currently receive more money from the EU than they contribute to it.
The second concern is political. The crucial difference between membership and non-membership in the EU is a seat at the table—voting power in the array of bodies that make decisions about the future of the continent. Many of the most important decisions, particularly about foreign policy, must be made unanimously. Each country’s quota of seats in the European Parliament is roughly proportionate to the size of its population.
Ukraine would enter the union as the fifth largest member, and it wouldn’t take much political maneuvering for a bloc of Eastern European and Baltic states to outnumber even France and Germany voting together. “We can finesse the financial issues,” a high-ranking EU official told me recently. “The big thing is the center of gravity”—what admitting Ukraine would mean for the balance of power in the EU.
On the other hand, Ukraine has the potential in the long term to contribute more than it receives. Its vast territory—physically, it’s the biggest country in Europe apart from Russia—produces a bounty of raw materials and agricultural products. After more than a year of war, even with a Russian campaign to destroy its energy infrastructure, Ukraine is exporting electricity to Europe. The population is relatively skilled and educated even by European standards. In the short term, this means cheap goods and cheap labor for Europe—both a plus and a minus in a single market. But over the longer haul, both can be expected to pay off for the union.
The last decade has brought a quantum leap in digitization in Ukraine, well ahead of most of the rest of the continent, even in rural areas. Ukrainian civil society is among the most developed in the post-Soviet world, making it a model for democracies everywhere. Rebuilding the economy in the wake of the war will pose historic challenges but also opportunities for foreign investors. And as Ukraine rebuilds, its large consumer market can be an engine of growth for export economies across the continent.
The Zelensky government, keen to make this case to the world, has launched a campaign laying out Europe’s likely return on investment. “Embrace Ukraine, strengthen Europe,” the tagline reads. “Ukraine is energy. Ukraine is modern. We want to work on a common prosperous future.” But Kyiv understands that its most powerful argument goes beyond the financial case, and the campaign also appeals to the other Europe, the part that defines itself by its ideals. “Ukraine is responsibility [and] democratic values,” the videos declare. “We’re motivated [and] brave. We have proved we belong to the European family.”
It’s hard to remember now, but the European Union’s founding rationale actually combined both economic and political ideals. Strong economic ties between historic rivals France and Germany would make another war in Europe “not merely unthinkable but materially impossible,” French foreign minister Robert Schuman wrote in 1950. These two connected goals have sometimes seemed to come apart—how else to explain the years of hesitation to admit nations emerging from the Soviet bloc? But the war in Ukraine is changing the equation. There’s a new challenge on the table, rarely stated but obvious to everyone. “What is the EU.” Ukrainian civil society activist Mykhailo Zhernakov asked me bluntly, “if it can’t support people who are dying for its values?”
That question is reverberating across Europe. Both Germany and France, long hesitant about EU enlargement, now seem committed to admitting Ukraine. It needs to happen “as swiftly as possible,” a contrite-sounding French president Emmanuel Macron announced last month at a conference in Bratislava.
But fast-tracking can’t be done at the expense of internal reforms within Ukraine. “We will not be a successful country without the rule of law,” activist Zhernakov insists.
There will be no investment from or financial gain for Europe without a stable business climate and an independent judiciary. The EU’s seven conditions are vital, and if anything, Ukrainian civil society groups would like to see those requirements made tougher. “Conditions have to be detailed and technical,” Zhernakov maintains, “the more precise the better. Now is the moment—now and as the negotiations unfold in coming years. The EU has the leverage to make us change. It needs to use it.”