On 28 February 2022, the government of war-torn Ukraine signed an application for European Union membership, asking for immediate accession. Three days later, Georgia and Moldova also submitted applications. This is understandable given that all three former Soviet countries have suffered from Russian aggression and aspire to peaceful, democratic and economically successful development.
The three countries already have close economic and political ties with the EU. In 2014, they signed Association Agreements with the EU, which entered into force in 2016 for Georgia and Moldova and 2017 for Ukraine. These agreements include Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTAs) that establish free trade in manufactured goods and some liberalisation in trade in agricultural goods and services between the three countries and the EU.
How should the EU respond to the new membership requests?
EU countries are deeply divided on this question. Several eastern members want to give a positive signal to Ukraine and the other two applicants, with some even wanting to declare them as EU candidates as soon as possible. But most western members are reluctant to move in this direction and prefer to continue working with the three countries within the framework of the existing Association Agreements.
Both positions are understandable.
Eastern EU members are mainly motivated by stability in the region. Like my Bruegel colleague, Marek Dabrowski, many eastern governments believe the EU should commit formally to supporting the efforts of the three countries towards European integration, as it did with the Western Balkan countries at the Thessaloniki summit in June 2003, in the aftermath of the war in the region.
Many western members, however, are reluctant to engage in accession negotiations with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine before a new security arrangement in Europe is reached with Russia. They also feel the EU cannot be further enlarged before it makes significant changes to its internal functioning.
The current EU is very different from the Union of the 1990s, when the accession process started with the 11 countries of central and eastern Europe that eventually joined the EU in or after 2004. The EU has become more political, partly in response to the geopolitical changes that have taken place during the past 30 years. Yet, the unanimity rule for some issues and the greater heterogeneity among EU members have made the EU’s decision-making process often too cumbersome to take appropriate decisions. Consequently, there is a real reluctance on the part of certain EU countries, especially those wanting to deepen the process of European integration, to accept new members before making important treaty changes, in particular to remove the unanimity rule in certain sensitive areas.
How to move forward in these conditions?
Even if EU countries could agree on a declaration to welcome the three new applicants in their midst at some stage, their actual EU accession would still be very distant, as it has been for the Western Balkan countries after the Thessaloniki Declaration. Accession requires many steps: the European Commission must first assess the application then make a recommendation to grant the applicant country the status of candidate. The Council of the EU must then approve with unanimity the Commission’s recommendation, and the Commission must then recommend the opening of negotiations with the candidate country, which must again be approved unanimously by the Council. The Commission will then negotiate with the applicant to verify that it meets the criteria for membership. When satisfied, the Commission must again make a recommendation to the Council to unanimously sign the treaty of accession. Finally the candidate country can become a member.
Six Western Balkan countries participated in the 2003 Thessaloniki summit and received a commitment from the EU that it would support their efforts towards European integration. Nearly 20 years later, only one country, Croatia, which had already applied for EU membership before the summit, has actually joined the EU. Four other countries have received the status of candidate country, but accession negotiations have only started with two of them. Finally, Bosnia and Herzegovina formally applied for EU membership only in 2016 and is still waiting to receive the status of candidate country. Table 1 shows some of the dates between application and membership for these six Western Balkan countries.
The process of accession for Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine is likely to be at least as lengthy as for the Western Balkan countries, for two main reasons.
First, the economic and political situations in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine mean it is likely to require many years before these countries even start accession negotiations, let alone complete them successfully. Second, as already mentioned, some EU countries are reluctant to enlarge the EU before making treaty changes to remove the unanimity rule in some areas.
This suggests the EU needs a different approach to strengthen ties with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, involving more than the current Association Agreements but less than EU candidate status.
Before engaging in a process of accession, it would be wise to envisage another status for European countries that wish to have closer relations with the EU. This status should apply to all current EU candidates – which include not only Albania, Montenegro, Northern Macedonia and Serbia but also Turkey – and to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, or even Belarus and Russia if and when they are deemed to fulfil the requirements of the EU treaty to apply for EU membership. The new status could also apply to other countries including Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
This new status should offer these countries substantially more than free trade in goods, some liberalisation in agricultural and services and financial help to improve their governance and adopt EU rules – in other words, than Association Agreements.
One possibility would be membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), which currently offers Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway participation in the EU Single Market. Another would be membership of the Continental Partnership, a structure I and fellow authors put forward in 2016 to deal with the relationship between the EU and the post-Brexit United Kingdom, as well as countries like Ukraine and Turkey. The main difference between the European Economic Area and the Continental Partnership is that the latter would not include free movement of labour. Whether they enjoy the full four freedoms of the EU single market, as EEA members do, or only three freedoms, as Continental Partnership countries would, low-income countries would all gain substantial resources to foster institutional and economic convergence, with access to the resources contingent on their making sufficient progress towards this objective. Finally, all countries belonging to the EEA or the Continental Partnership would participate in the functioning of some EU institutions with observer status or potentially more, but only EU members would have voting rights in the Commission, the Council and the Parliament.
Either status envisaged here would mark a huge improvement for Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, which currently have Association Agreements with the European Union. It would promote economic and political reforms that would enable these countries to enjoy the kind of economic stability and economic convergence they aspire to. Potentially, it may lead to EU membership if they make sufficient progress and the EU succeeds in reforming itself to make enlargement feasible without leading to gridlock.
Lastly, accession to the EU, the EEA or the Continental Partnership needs to be treated on a case-by-case basis according to the situation of each applicant country. This means that the process of European integration will surely proceed at different speeds for Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, and perhaps in different forms.
Sapir, A. (2022) ‘How should the EU respond to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine’s membership aspirations?’ Bruegel Blog, 14 March