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  • Carla Smith

Ukraine's accession to the EU: Is enlargement still possible?

This Briefing analyses the political and institutional obstacles standing in the way of Ukraine's accession to the European Union in the wake of the war with Russia, and the broader structural reforms that future enlargement would require. This piece was written by Joey Zhang and edited by Carla Smith.


EU enlargement, fatigue, and implications 

European Union (EU) enlargement has been widely regarded as a highly successful and novel diplomatic initiative that has brought the region economic prosperity and unprecedented stability. Yet, the EU accession process has stalled tremendously in the last decade with repeated negotiation delays, resulting in the average European state now facing a 9-year wait before being granted membership. This is contrasted with the wave of Central and Eastern European states admitted into the Union in 2004 after a much shorter negotiation period ranging from 4 to 6 years. The prolonged accession process spurred suspicions towards the EU candidacy status as being merely symbolic with little prospect of membership provision, a fate awaiting Ukraine and other Western Baltic candidate states alike. 

Scholars have credited this development to “enlargement fatigue, a term describing the EU’s reluctance towards expansion due to fears of regional instability, diluted influence, and economic backlash brought about by the accession of institutionally and economically weak states that necessitates extensive diversion of limited resources away from existing EU members. An expanded union also enhances unanimous voting-induced gridlocks which creates enforcement and legislative difficulties, further contributing to fatigue. This reluctance is observable in the European Commission's approach towards candidate states, which has become short-term managerial in nature spurred by a lack of motivation for long-term effort. Furthermore, as accession treaties require consent from both the European Parliament and national parliaments, the political will of member states becomes a decisive factor in the successful enlargement of the Union.

However, geopolitical developments in the region such as Russian aggression and the strengthening of Chinese influence in European markets have forced the EU to reaffirm its commitment towards enlargement. Prolonged accession procedures and ambiguous messaging towards aspirant members reduce the EU’s credibility, creating a geopolitical vacuum in Eastern Europe that is subject to more overt strategic competition. Enlargement understood as a form of security investment has thus gained resonance within the EU, with the European Council emphasising this goal while opening accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova during its summit held on 14th December 2023. Undoubtedly, accession poses a wide array of institutional and economic challenges that still need to be overcome before a mutually beneficial arrangement can arise from EU enlargement. 

Challenges unique to Ukrainian accession

The Russo-Ukrainian war provides the momentum for enlargement by highlighting the need to strengthen the EU's geopolitical strength and establishing a balance of power in the region — one that ensures both the internal and external stability needed for collective prosperity. For Ukraine, EU membership is also critical for its postwar political and economic reconstruction while deterring a revanchist Russia. Given the EU’s emphasis on the merit-based Copenhagen criteria for accession — the need for market stability and the upholding of EU laws and values — Ukraine has undergone extensive domestic reforms recently, such as implementing governmental decentralisation and ratifying human rights laws, reportedly completing 90% of the necessary steps laid by the European Commission that preceded its invitation to negotiation. However, institutional challenges within the EU still pose a surmountable obstacle to Ukraine's successful accession. 

A key challenge unique to Ukraine’s accession lies in its embroilment in a territorial conflict with Russia, where the state does not have full authority over its officially recognised territory. As Article 42.7 within the Treaty on European Union (TEU) details a strict legal obligation regarding military aid provision for a fellow member under armed aggression on its territory, a long-drawn conflict between Russia and Ukraine will only deter EU enlargement due to the resultant resource drain and conflict escalation. Henceforth, if Ukraine cannot resolve its territorial disputes against a revanchist Russia determined to annex the state, accession will be a near-impossible eventuality. As a solution to expedite the integration of a state embroiled in territorial conflict, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) points to the accession of Cyprus during its territorial dispute with Türkiye as a potential model. Incentivised by an EU membership, Cyprus conceded part of its territory to a militarised zone enabling its accession. Yet, the geopolitical conditions of the two conflicts are vastly different, challenging the viability of such a solution — Russia remains a pariah to the West, while Türkiye is a NATO member state that maintained amicable ties with the EU. The option for Ukraine to concede a part of its territory is also a widely unpopular one. Unless there is a solution for sustainable ceasefire and territorial demarcation between Russia and Ukraine, Ukraine’s accession will be indefinitely delayed. 

Ukraine’s integration also poses a surmountable challenge to the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) — a critical EU policy that stabilises agricultural prices and distributes funding to farmers. Ukraine possesses high concentrations of fertile black soil which bestows enormous comparative advantage to its agricultural sector, allowing it to remain one of the world’s top agricultural exporters. Besides the long-term financial aid for post-war reconstruction and sizable agricultural subsidies needed from the EU, Ukraine’s entry into the CAP agreement enables the state to export high volumes of cheap agricultural goods throughout Europe tariff-free. Not only does this impose a financial toll on the EU, the economic backlash faced by farmers of other member states induces political challenges. These farmers, unable to utilise price competition for their own agricultural goods, suffer in sales and thus oppose enlargement by increasing support for Eurosceptic parties, illustrated in recent farmer protests concentrated in Brussels. A formal reform to the CAP is thus imperative to the successful integration of Ukraine; the European Parliament recently recognised the need for a negotiated 10-year phasing in of agricultural payments by new members towards the fund to avoid an unsustainable one-sided diversion of resources. Additionally, the EU could also leverage upon the comparative advantage that Ukraine’s agricultural powerhouse can bring to the region — cheaper food products enable a decreased cost of living for citizens that enhances welfare goals whilst conferring food security. 

Broader structural challenges of EU enlargement 

The CAP, together with the EU’s cornerstone cohesion funds which channel payouts to states to compensate for union spatial inequality, make up roughly 65% of the EU’s total budget agreed upon within the 7-yearly Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). Ukraine’s reconstruction and agricultural needs entitle them to a significant proportion of the current budget which will result in major funding cuts for other member states, an outcome which will be compounded by the accession of other West Balkan candidate states given their weaker economies that garner sizeable cohesion fund allocations. However, a policy paper by the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS) details several ways in which the costs of Ukrainian accession can be mitigated to expedite overall enlargement processes. A transitional period can be set up where payments to new member states are capped, instead financing Ukraine through international donors like the IMF, through reparation from frozen Russian assets, or through EU bonds financing. More broadly, there have been calls to increase the EU budget proportional to GDP, while establishing new own resources — the raising of EU revenue without increasing income taxation through methods like securing payments from very profitable MNCs — and issuing common EU debt to strengthen the union’s financial autonomy in preparation for further enlargement beyond Ukraine. 

Most crucially, a treaty reform concerning the EU's voting procedure is imperative before further enlargement. Unanimous voting has enabled some member states to weaponise their veto power to induce political gridlock and extract concessions, which will become more disruptive with enlargement. For instance, Hungary’s Viktor Orban most recently vetoed a €50 billion aid package for Ukraine. The fear of admitting other rogue states with misaligned interests extends to Ukraine and the current candidate states. To overcome future political gridlock and facilitate EU efficacy, a group of nine member states led by Germany initiated a push to extend qualified majority voting (QMV) into foreign policy and defence issue areas, where 15 of 27 member states must be in agreement while accounting for 65% of the EU’s total population. While this move mitigates the weaponisation of veto powers by a singular state, it simultaneously poses significant tradeoffs to sovereignty especially for smaller states who can no longer influence EU policy meaningfully. Uneven power dynamics within the institution upon voting reforms may also exacerbate existing riffs between member states and further contribute to Eurosceptic backlash. 

While the urgency of Ukraine's case rejuvenates prospects of enlargement to other West Balkan candidate states, many non-institutional obstacles remain. The merit-based approach to accession forces candidate states to undergo EU-mandated domestic reforms which have seen limited progress thus far, preventing further steps towards accession negotiation in the foreseeable future. To combat the geopolitical power vacuum in Eastern Europe, alternative solutions for prospective members such as accession short of full membership and differentiated integration have been floated. Accession short of full membership includes the provisioning of financial assistance for reforms towards candidate states which offsets Russian and Chinese influence while granting certain benefits of the EU before formal membership. For instance, the enabling of unrestricted flows of goods, capital, services and people is a key tenet of EU membership that was extended to non-member states throughout the Russo-Ukrainian war, a strategy which not only reaffirms EU credibility but also creates space to rebalance trade volumes. Meanwhile, the solution of differentiated integration involves the gradual accession into individual EU institutions as states fulfil specific requirements, while allowing them to opt out of certain policies rather than expecting all-rounded reforms and commitment. This expedites the enlargement process. 

Given the wide range of surmountable structural challenges in the way of EU enlargement — ranging from budgetary concerns and voting procedures to tight accession rules — it is with no doubt that the prospect of substantial constitutional reforms and complex (re)negotiations generates fatigue for EU member states. Yet given the geopolitical landscape looming right by the EU's doorstep, the union must continue to trudge on and find flexibility in enlargement strategies to sustain regional security, credibility, and prosperity. 

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