Andrius Kubilius. Why Is Ukraine’s European Union Membership Necessary For The European Union Itself?

2024-01-15 | Ukraine, European Union

The decision of the European Council last December to open accession negotiations for Ukraine’ and Moldova’ European Union membership is of particular historical significance. These are not just empty words about the significance of this decision, because Ukraine’s accession to the European Union fundamentally changes the long-term development perspective of the whole European continent. Today, it is particularly important for the European Union itself, its Member States and its citizens to understand that Ukraine becoming a member of the European Union is not some kind of the EU charity for Ukraine, which is struggling hard for its freedom. This is a goal that is important not only for Ukraine, striving for it since the Revolution of Dignity in Maidan in 2013, but also for the European Union itself.

Why is it important for the European Union to understand this? Because the enlargement process of the European Union depends largely on the political will of the European Union itself – in the late 1990s, the EU negotiations with the Central European and Baltic countries lasted 3-4 years and were fruitful, while the integration process of the Western Balkans, which began almost 20 years ago, is not moving at all, because the EU has declared that it is “tired of enlargement” and no longer has a “hunger for enlargement”.

Ukraine’s integration process can and must bring back to the European Union the “hunger for enlargement” and the understanding that such an enlargement is also necessary for the European Union itself, not only for Ukraine. Ukraine’s “hunger” for the EU membership is the major factor, an icebreaker, which forces the EU to change its own attitude to the whole process of enlargement: not only towards to the region of the Eastern Partnership, but also towards the region of Western Balkans. The strategic importance of such an enlargement for the European Union should be made clear by Russia’s war against Ukraine, which started two years ago. Why? Because lasting peace on the European continent can only be achieved if the EU’s efforts fulfill two essential conditions: a) that the West has the political will to provide sufficient military support to Ukraine, thus creating the conditions for Ukraine to achieve a victory over Russia; and b) that the European Union has the political will to do all it can to ensure that Ukraine and other countries from Eastern Partnership and Western Balkan regions become members of the EU by 2030.

Why is this important?

There are three main reasons why the European Union should see Ukraine’s membership by 2030 as its key strategic objective:

1. EU membership is the only way to build Ukraine’s economic success, which is necessary not only for Ukraine but also for the EU itself.

The history of the successful economic development over the last two decades of the Central European and Baltic countries as EU members is a clear evidence that in the post-Soviet space, economic success can only be created if a country has the potential to become an EU member state and, at the same time, part of the EU’s rich Common Market. My country, Lithuania, started negotiations for EU membership in 1999. Negotiations lasted only for 3 years until 2002 and Lithuania became the EU member in 2004. In 1999, Lithuania’s GDP per capita in PPP terms was only 36% of the EU average. After Lithuania became the EU member, its economic development has been so rapid that nowadays the same indicator of Lithuania’s economic development already reaches 90% of the EU average, and Lithuania has not only overtaken many Central European countries, but is also starting to overtake the old EU members in Western Europe.

Ukraine’s economic development is now  at the same level Lithuania had reached in 1999: Ukraine’s GDP/capita in PPP terms is now only 36% of the EU average. For various geopolitical reasons, largely beyond Ukraine’s control, the country has not been able to join the European Union at a time when the Central European and Baltic States have successfully followed this path. This has led to the current enormous economic gap between Ukraine and Central Europe. However, it is necessary to remember that Ukraine in the 1990s was equal in economic development to its neighboring Poland, because Ukraine had, and still has, a strongly developed industrial base, an abundant highly skilled workforce and is extremely rich in natural resources. All this is a clear evidence that if Ukraine were to become a member of the EU, and thus join the EU’s Single Market, it would very quickly replicate the path of Lithuania’s (and other Central European countries’) successful economic development. This means that over the next 20 years upon becoming an EU member, Ukraine would practically catch up with the EU’s average level of economic development. This is what Ukrainians truly deserve. It also means that EU businesses investing in the economy of Ukraine, as an EU member state, would have made huge profits and increased the value of their investments several times over 20 years. An economically wealthy Ukraine would also increase the EU’s own economic power. And of course, an economically successful Ukraine, as a member of the EU, would extend European success and stability far to the East. This would also be a clear strategic benefit for the EU.

2. Ukraine’s EU membership – eliminating security grey areas on the European continent

Since 24 February 2022, the entire European continent, including the European Union, has been living in the context of a huge geopolitical crisis: Russia’s war against Ukraine. One of the reasons why Putin decided to wage the war against Ukraine was that the West had for decades left Ukraine in a “security grey area” with no clear prospects of becoming a member of the EU or NATO. This created a temptation for Putin to believe in the fallacy that the West would not defend Ukraine, leaving it in Russia’s “zone of interests”.

Today it is clear that peace and security on the European continent can only be realized when Russia ceases to be a source of neo-imperialist aggression. There is a famous quote by Z.Brzezinski that Russia, which has the opportunity to control Ukraine, will always remain an empire, and only Russia, which loses this opportunity, will have the chance to become a normal European state. Ukraine’s accession to the EU is therefore also important in the sense that it will remove one of the most dangerous “security grey areas” on the European continent. This will also, in the long term, help Russia to become a normal state. Achieving such a change on the European continent should be the European Union’s most important long-term strategic objective. Ukraine’s accession to the EU is therefore strategically important for the European Union and for the security on the European continent.

3. Ukraine’s success story – an inspiration for change in the wider post-Soviet East

After the 1990s, the post-Soviet space, separated for decades from the democratic Western world by the Iron Curtain, is undergoing an inevitable historical transformation: the values of democracy and the European rule of law are slowly but surely spreading from the western fringes of this space to the eastern spaces, still riddled with authoritarianism and underdevelopment. Central Europe and the Baltic States at the beginning, now Ukraine and Moldova and Georgia (Sakartvelo) are following the same path. Armenia is rushing to follow the example, since it is attractive and contagious, because it is the only way to create success in the post-Soviet space. A normal successful state is what the majority of its citizens naturally want.

By helping Ukraine to become a member of the EU and thus a successful country, the European Union will also create the most powerful geopolitical instrument of its positive influence, because Ukraine’s success will inspire positive change in the populations of Russia and Belarus, South Caucasus and Central Asia, who also want to live in their own normal countries. This is a particularly significant time for the European Union because it has a window of real opportunity, unprecedented in the European continent’s painful history, to help the eastern part of Europe to transform itself and to overcome its underdevelopment. That window of opportunity for the European Union has a very clear name: “Ukraine’s success”. And such a Ukrainian success can only be created by the European Union realising the ambitious plan of “Ukraine becoming a member of the EU”. That is why Ukraine’s membership of the European Union is not only necessary for Ukraine, it is necessary for the European Union itself, it is necessary for change in Russia, Belarus, the South Caucasus and even Central Asia.

If Ukraine’s membership is necessary for the European Union itself, who can prevent it?

While it is clear that Ukraine’s membership is also necessary for the European Union itself, the European Union may well itself be the biggest obstacle on this strategically crucial path. The biggest obstacle is to stop seeing long-term strategic goals through the daily routine. Two problems will potentially rise as the biggest obstacles: a) the EU’s own rules for the enlargement negotiations, requiring the unanimous consent of all EU members at every step of the negotiation process; and b) the fear among the EU’s old-timers (especially in Central Europe) that Ukraine’s economic success could create a great deal of competitive pain for both old and new EU members.

Therefore, for the EU enlargement to be a success story, not only will Ukraine and other candidate countries need to implement reforms, but the EU itself will also have to pass its own “wisdom test”.

To pass this “wisdom test”, the EU will first need to revise the framework and decision-making process of membership negotiations to create rules and procedures that no longer serve as a trap but start to facilitate negotiations. Until now, the EU’s political will for enlargement has been too weak, with bureaucratic traps during negotiations being overly intricate. The absence of enlargement in recent decades, along with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, are direct consequences of these issues. Now is the time for the EU to demonstrate wisdom.

And secondly, the Central European fear of economic competition with Ukraine’s successful economy is absolutely of the same nature as it was in the 1990s, when Germany and France feared impending competition with the economy and agriculture of Poland. At that time, German and French businesses managed to overcome their fears and began investing in Poland’s economy, from which they reaped huge profits. The same will happen with those EU companies that start investing in Ukraine today. This could primarily be businesses from Central Europe, which will invest in Ukraine and have a vested interest in the success of Ukraine’s integration into the EU because it will create a predictable European business environment. However, if Central European businesses focus only on preventing Ukrainian businesses from entering the EU Single Market, then it will be businesses from Western Europe that will invest, “occupy” the Ukrainian market, and earn huge profits. Central Europe will simply lose out in competition with Western Europe. It’s time for “wisdom” on the Central European side.

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The European Union is on the threshold of historic prospects. The name of these prospects is “enlargement”. These prospects will only materialize if the European Union itself understands that expansion is primarily necessary for the Union itself, as only bold enlargement will create the EU’s own success. And for that, the European Union needs to learn to live not just in a paradigm of “fears”, but also of “victories”. Ukraine’s membership in the European Union by the year 2030 will be a historic victory for both Ukraine and the European Union.

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