How Ukraine Can Get Into the EU

Hint: It requires flexibility from Brussels

8 December 2023

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

With Russia’s war against Ukraine turning into a prolonged conflict, the EU and Western institutions need to think creatively on how to integrate countries desperate to join and bravely fighting for democratic values.

The recommendations of the European Commission to start negotiations with Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova on their accession to the European Union are obviously changing the ambitions of the EU and the very nature of European space. 

A shift in the zeitgeist

Until recently, it might have seemed that after the accession of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to the EU, European integration in the post-Soviet space was complete. 

In relation to the former Soviet republics, there was an attempt to talk primarily about neighbourhood policy and the development of the Eastern Partnership programme, which did not impose any specific obligations on anyone and made it possible to unite in one unambitious club both countries that insisted on pursuing European integration and countries that had never been interested in such integration or even participated in joint integration associations with Russia – such as Belarus.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine changed everything. Rather, we can now emerge from the understanding that where European space ends, another civilisation does not begin. Where European space begins, war and legal uncertainty end.

This is why the European Union’s ambitions are now extending to the integration of the former Soviet republics, which have recently been regarded not even as outside this integration but simply as neighbours of the European Union. Therefore, we are now talking not only about Ukraine and Moldova but also about Georgia, which, if admitted to the European Union, will become its enclave in the South Caucasus.

And negotiations in a time of war and in an era of such intense international tensions are really not easy. Moreover, they have to be conducted with countries whose territorial integrity is still in question. 

Incompatible past experiences

Indeed, the question of how integration will depend on the problem of territorial integrity is the defining question of the European integration of the former Soviet republics. 

After all, the European Union has only once faced such a problem when it came to the integration of Cyprus. But at the same time, it was possible to speak of a long-standing conflict; moreover, at the time of the decision to accept Cyprus into the European Union, there was a hope (unfortunately not realised) that the island’s population would agree to its reunification. Well, there is another important circumstance that is often forgotten. The sole political patron of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus remains Turkey, a member of NATO and, incidentally, a candidate for membership of the European Union. The EU could therefore hope that Turkey would not deliberately destabilise the situation in the event of the annexation of Cyprus.

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Things are very different in the former Soviet republics. Russia is now at the height of its aggressiveness. Moscow has not only occupied part of Ukrainian territory but also annexed the Ukrainian regions of Crimea, Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporozhye. 

In the case of Georgia, Russia announced the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. An agreement was then signed that transformed the “armed forces” of these two unrecognised republics into units of the armed forces of the Russian Federation. 

In fact, here we can speak of the de facto annexation of foreign territories, such as the Transnistrian Moldovan Republic, which is not recognised by nor part of Russia despite the holding of “referendums” on joining the Russian Federation. However, Transnistria remains a de facto protectorate of Russia, Russian troops are stationed in the region, and its own security forces are an important, unspoken part of Russia’s repressive machine.

So far, only the President of the Republic of Moldova, Maia Sandu, has announced a possible approach to solving the problem of admission to the EU in a situation of territorial disintegration, indicating that integration “stage by stage” is possible. 

In practice, this would mean that first, the part of the country controlled by the legitimate government joins the EU, and then the conditions are created for the integration of the rest. Ms Sandu expects Moldova’s European integration to set a good example and encourage the people of Transnistria while creating the conditions for the reunification of her country.

Currently, the Ukrainian leadership is unlikely to support such an approach, as Kyiv is counting on the restoration of the country’s territorial integrity as the main outcome of the war with Russia. However, war is an event whose end cannot be predicted. Not only the leadership of Ukraine and Ukrainian society but also EU leaders and citizens will have to answer an important question: is the European Union ready not only for accession negotiations but also for real integration of countries with unresolved territorial problems?

It seems to me that expecting the problem to be solved “on its own” during negotiations is the most infantile choice of all. What if it does not work out? What will the European Union look like if – after successful negotiations, adaptation of the candidate countries to the EU’s conditions, political and economic rapprochement – it suddenly turns out that no decision can be taken before the issue of restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine or Moldova has been resolved? What will then happen to the reputation of the European Union and the expectations of the public in the candidate countries? And how to explain to the people of these countries that the keys to their European integration have not been in Kyiv, Chişinău and Brussels all these years, but in Moscow? 

It turns out, after all, that by maintaining control over part of the territories of the former Soviet republics, Russia can slow down the process of their European (and Euro-Atlantic) integration. But this is precisely the purpose for which Russia has established control over foreign territories! It turns out that the concept of “disabled countries” is legitimate.

Uneven playing field

We must understand that the new enlargement of the European Union is taking place in a new historical era. Post-war international law was ruthlessly trampled by Russia as early as 2014 after the annexation of Crimea. Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022 only confirmed Russia’s commitment to revising international law and its willingness to further annex foreign territories. 

Thus, if one side strictly adheres to the norms of international law and the other continues to act in the direction of violating it, the trap will certainly not be the one who violates but the one who adheres to the practically destroyed rules.

The European Union will certainly have to take innovative decisions. The question is when exactly this will happen. However, I am sure that intentions should be declared at the very beginning of the negotiation process and not at the end. 

We should not create a sense of endless negotiation and process for process’s sake among citizens of countries wishing to join the EU. And – most importantly – we must not allow Russia to have the feeling that it is right to treat neighbouring countries as “disabled states” whose territorial disintegration is an infallible dam in the way of European and Euro-Atlantic integration – no matter what negotiations are held and promises are made. 

Let us at least admit it to ourselves: integration into the EU, of which the principle of territorial integrity is a precondition, is a sham integration under the current conditions for countries in either the post-Soviet space or perhaps in the Western Balkans.

Therefore, the European Union must now declare that Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova and Georgia will become members of the EU, whether or not the question of their territorial integrity is resolved upon accession. Russia cannot be allowed to undermine the European aspirations of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia or perhaps other former Soviet republics that want to join the EU in the future. That the decision to admit new members to the European Union will be made in Brussels, not Moscow.

It will certainly not be an easy decision. However, its consequences will also be important for the European Union as it will mean more stability on the continent and – if the European integration of the Western Balkans is also successful – the “completion” of the European project, its success not only economically but also in terms of civilisation. 

Charles de Gaulle once spoke of a “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok”. Even at the time he uttered these words, they were already a political utopia. And now it is clear that after the fall of communism, Russia has made a choice in favour of a different, non-European civilisation. But Europe from Lisbon to Odessa and Tbilisi is also a great success story.

Of course, such success requires greater efficiency on the part of the European Union itself. 

The process of integration of new countries must be accompanied by reforms within the EU itself, a return to common values rather than a prioritisation of economic interests. 

It is necessary to think about the effectiveness of institutions in the situation of the accession of several more countries with significant populations. How to keep the European Parliament and, most importantly, the European Commission functional? How to ensure that respect for the principle of consensus does not lead to necessary decisions being blocked? How to achieve the understanding that in the new conditions of international confrontation, under conditions of a de facto devaluation of the post-war principles of international law, solidarity in the field of security should also be the basis not only for the functioning but for the very survival of the European Union.

All these decisions must be taken at the stage of integration of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and, of course, the countries of the Western Balkans. These countries should join a much more effective and timely European Union and, through their accession, strengthen its effectiveness rather than leading to defragmentation and new divisions. 

But in order to do this, it is necessary to understand that we are entering an era of non-standard and difficult decisions.



This text is co-funded by the European Union. Foresight on  European values and democratic security is carried out as part of a 4-year framework partnership to support European networks, civil society organisations active at EU level and European think tanks in the areas of Union values (CERV).

To read more about EU values foresight, click here and download our report

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Vitaly is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. He is also an author and renowned journalist working in democratic media in Central and Eastern Europe for more than three decades. He is the author of hundreds of analytical articles in Ukrainian, Belarusian, Polish, Russian, Israeli, Baltic media. He hosts television programs and his own analytical channels on YouTube. He is currently broadcasting at the office of the Espreso TV channel in Lviv and continues to cooperate with the Ukrainian and Russian services of Radio Liberty. On the Russian service of Radio Liberty, he continues the project about the post-Soviet space “Roads to Freedom”, which was aired first from Moscow, then from Kyiv, and is now being produced in Lviv as a joint project of Radio Liberty, the Current Time TV channel and the Espreso TV channel.

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