Ukraine Is Coming Back to the Centre of Europe

War has changed everything-even geography

14 July 2022

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Before the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian war, the possibility of Ukraine and Moldova getting the status of candidates for EU membership seemed an issue of the distant future.

The fact that candidacy status has been granted for the first time in the history of the European Union with conditions implying the possibility of annulation in instances of incompatibility shows how the process could have developed in a pre-war reality.

I was sure the case had not been based solely on conditions Ukraine would have to fulfil. I doubted that the European integration of Ukraine could have moved forward before that of the Western Balkans.

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However, that region’s prospects do not necessarily fill one with optimism. The perennial blockade — initially with Greece and currently with Bulgaria at the forefront — has discouraged accession talks with Northern Macedonia and Albania. Then there is the absence of progress in the search for a compromise between Serbia and Kosovo. The attempted revenge of the pro-Russian forces in Montenegro. Finally, the eternal insecurity and ineffectiveness in Bosnia and Herzegovina have resulted in the country not even being granted candidate status. How long is this process supposed to take?

It Is Poland — Not Ukraine — That Stands the Most to Gain

The war has changed everything. The European Union’s politics of expansion will have to simultaneously take care of the Western Balkans and the post-Soviet states, although this may have been the plan from the beginning.

In all honesty, the future stability of the continent is equally dependent on how the Balkans, as well as Eastern Europe, will pass their integration exams. Poles should perceive the upcoming European integration of Ukraine not as a challenge but as a chance. 

For many years I have told my Polish colleagues that Poland, not Ukraine, will be the main benefactor of the country’s accession. Of course, membership in the European Union will be a civilisational success for Ukraine. However, the current state of Russia — and how it will look in the upcoming decades — will mean that Ukraine will be a borderland state for the EU. 

This could lead to a civilisational shift for the whole of the EU, whose members will try to prove the efficiency and lack of alternatives to authoritarianism with the success of the bloc. For Ukraine, it is better to be the borderland of democracy rather than of an authoritarian bloc. But a border is a border — an honourable but difficult fate.

Ukraine on the Border, Poland in the Centre

On the other hand, Ukraine’s integration into the European community will ‘push’ Poland from the borderland of the EU to its centre. Poland will have a chance to become one of the most influential states in the EU. One could even say a regional leader, such as France in the south of Europe and Germany in the west. This will especially be the case if Polish-Ukrainian integration continues successfully, which currently I would even go so far as to call diffusion rather than integration. 

This is because we have already observed the creation of a common job market and capital market in both countries. Imagine if our countries’ cooperation would be no longer divided by the European border. 

Moreover, Poland has a chance to expand the borders of its influence. Until recently, the Visegrad group was the most outstanding example of such cooperation. But this can be expanded with the simultaneous European integration of Ukraine and Moldova, bringing Warsaw and Bucharest closer together. Before WWII, Romania was Poland’s neighbour.

Romania’s Policy Goals Can Be Achieved

In the first decade of Ukraine’s independence, the country was perceived — even by the representatives of pro-Russian parts of the state’s elites — as somewhat of a ‘bridge’ between Russia and the EU. But the reality is that Ukraine is a state which could bring together Romania and Poland. Moreover, the two already have much in common. 

Poland tries to promote European integration of Ukraine while simultaneously having a good relationship with Moldovia and initiating support for its European aspirations. Romania is the main stimulator of Moldovian European integration, but its association with Ukraine, both political and economic, is increasing due to the Russian aggression. And precisely that enhancement of the relationship will allow in the future — especially in the context of European integration — a creative approach to future cooperation of the borderland states. 

The whole of Bukovina, which was divided on the eve of the second world war, will once again find all of its pieces in a common civilisational and economic sphere, drastically improving Romanians’ livelihood from the Chernivtsi region and Ukrainians living in the Romanian province of Moldavia as well as the Republic of Moldova. 

The problem with the stability of the small republic is finding a solution to the Transnistria issue, which is difficult for Ukraine and Romania. However, Warsaw can similarly participate in the peace process led by Bucharest and Kyiv. 

Czechs and Slovaks See Opportunity 

Furthermore, the interest the Czech Republic and Slovakia show in Ukraine’s EU accession proves that the country’s accession is perceived as an opportunity for them. Slovakia is now one of the prominent participants in supplying weapons to Ukraine. And simultaneously, we are seeing the possibilities of regional cooperation even in the Visegrad Group. 

What I mean is embodied in the Slovak proposition of providing Ukraine with fighter jets on the condition that Poland and the Czech Republic will protect the aerial space of the Slovak state. Slovak leadership already shares with Poland the role of protectors of the idea of Ukrainian European integration. This is especially evident in the travels of Polish President Andrzej Duda and Slovak President Zuzanna Čaputova to the southern states on the eve of the decision on EU accession for Ukraine and Moldova.

Hungary Is the Most Complex Case

Finally, Hungary. Budapest has the most complex relations with Ukraine among its EU neighbours. And yet, Viktor Orbán supported Ukraine’s European integration and even talked to Volodymir Zelenskyy the day before the EU summit. Indeed, Budapest’s insistence on remaining on good terms with Moscow will introduce nuance to the Hungarian approach to Ukrainian integration. However, even if we omit its economic dimension — integration remains a promising solution for numerous problems in Hungarian society. 

If we continue the narrative of ‘bridges,’ Transcarpatia becomes a genuine viaduct between Ukraine and Hungary. Thus, the region’s Hungarian national minority will have the possibility of living in a world where there is no need for a choice between the fatherland and the land of one’s predecessors. In other words, the same processes we have seen in states which had finalised their integration into the EU. 

Of course, there are different narratives within the EU on the role and the status of national minorities. Hungary has numerously expressed its peculiarity. However, following the integration of Ukraine, all Hungarians will live in the same union, which will perhaps allow the new generations of Hungarians to invoke the Treaty of Tranion less often.

Ukraine’s place is in the Centre

Let us look at the map of our continent — and we will see that the union will look utterly different following the accession of Ukraine and Moldova to the EU. 

What will be important is no longer calling Ukraine an ‘Eastern-European country’ just as Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary are no longer considered as such.

Instead, we will find ourselves with you in the centre of Europe. And then only Russia will remain in the East. 

Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship. Read more about the project here and consider contributing here.

Picture: “Poland Stands with Ukraine” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by alisdare1

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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