Admitting Ukraine will be the EU’s greatest geopolitical contribution to the war
Last month, the European Commission gave its long-awaited oral report on Ukraine’s development, examining the progress made towards the seven reforms the nation needs to pass before EU leaders approve beginning accession negotiations with Kyiv.
Although more needs to be done, Kyiv’s judiciary reforms have received a positive evaluation. The same holds for combating media vested interests. But Ukraine still has a lot to do in terms of fighting corruption, reducing oligarch influence, and protecting minorities. It now has until the autumn to show that it is making progress in these areas before European capitals consider a more thorough written assessment.
The EU’s readiness for admitting Ukraine, whether in 10, 15, or 20 years, was notably absent from this initial analysis. This is arguably the more significant factor, especially given that many in Berlin, Paris, and Brussels anticipate that Georgia, Moldova, and the Western Balkans will all join the EU at the same time. If leaders want to advance the enlargement of Ukraine at their meeting in December in Brussels, they must be confident that the EU won’t implode under its weight.
Thus, leaders will hold a preliminary discussion in Granada in early October on the implications for the EU should Ukraine eventually join the organization, or what is now referred to as the EU’s “absorption capacity.” And the EU budget and governance are the two most crucial aspects of this discussion.
Given that many policy areas require unanimity, governance concerns the EU’s capacity to operate, pass laws, and make decisions if the number of members increases from 27 to 35 or 36 countries.
Hungary’s use of its veto, which many in Brussels now perceive as an extension of its domestic and foreign policy, has brought to the forefront in EU capitals the possibility of paralysis absent a simplification of the bloc’s decision-making procedures.
One proposed solution to this issue is more qualified majority voting, which denies nations their veto power. This change in foreign and tax policy is already being supported by Germany and France. Hungary, Poland, and other nations, who want to maintain the requirement of unanimity to protect their sovereignty, are putting up a strong fight against them.
A compromise that allows for more qualified majority voting, say in foreign affairs, but with “safeguards” in place might be one way out of this impasse. Therefore, there would be consensus within the Council that member nations wouldn’t act contrary to one another’s fundamental national interests. For instance, Turkey-related issues would be regarded as a core interest in the case of Greece. But there is still a very long way to go in this argument.
The issue of EU budget funds is also significant
Cohesion funds for economic convergence and agricultural subsidies under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are currently the largest transfers from Brussels to member nations. They make up about two-thirds of the budget when combined.
However, there is still no consensus as of yet regarding how joining the EU would affect Ukraine’s budget. According to senior German officials who have studied the numbers, all EU nations that currently receive funding from the budget would eventually turn into net contributors. Although it seems unlikely, other EU capitals claim that the financial flows would essentially remain unchanged.
The Commission has not yet developed its analysis of the issue.
Ukraine will, however, receive a significant amount of cohesion and agricultural funds from Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe as a result of its membership because it is poorer and more agrarian than the average EU member state.
The question of whether the EU budget will need to be increased—possibly through additional supranational taxes or contributions from member countries—or completely rewired, then, is raised.
The Multi-Annual Financial Framework (MFF), a recent and challenging budget midterm review, showed how difficult it is for the bloc to reallocate funds within its current framework to meet new geopolitical priorities. And given the growing consensus in Brussels that the EU budget is no longer functional, that could serve as motivation for reform.
Even though Ukraine is unlikely to join the EU before the next 10 years, and it might even take longer than that, the following MFF, which runs from 2028 to 2034, will still need to make provisions for the country’s potential entry. This implies that in the coming years, leaders will already need to deal with these problems.
Accordingly, many in Brussels believe that the recently proposed €50 billion Ukraine facility will be the framework for how the next MFF will handle the country’s accession. Some officials are thinking about creating a facility that would exist alongside the regular budget but be distinct from it rather than engaging in a toxic political debate about who should receive which EU budget funds. Another suggestion is to create two MFFs, one for the current 27 members and the other for an expanded EU that would only become active after a new member joins. Before the 2004 accession of nations from Central and Eastern Europe, this took place in the year 2000. Yet again, reaching a consensus on any of this won’t be simple.
There are differing opinions on how these reforms should be carried out to make the EU “Ukraine-ready.”
A “convention” between all member countries (and Ukraine) would be necessary, similar to the process that gave birth to the Lisbon Treaty, according to some officials in Brussels who believe the institutional changes discussed above could be managed within the constraints of the Lisbon Treaty. Referendums might also be required in some nations, such as France, though this could be prevented legally if the decision to admit Ukraine was approved by a 3-to-5 majority in both of France’s parliamentary chambers. Politically, it’s challenging to imagine how a referendum could be avoided.
Last, but not least, it’s also entirely possible that the entire expansion process will be rethought to allow Ukraine to join.
The Western Balkans, including Ukraine, could integrate gradually over 10, 15, or 20 years as opposed to all at once. Senior EU officials discuss a scenario in which Ukraine would benefit from specific EU budget tools and programs while also closing specific chapters and gaining the right to participate in particular Council formations — to shape but not to take EU decisions.
This would make it possible for the EU to reform gradually, aiding in the de-escalation of the end-date discussion. Some nations, such as Germany, disagree with this strategy, claiming that if member nations maintain their veto power while candidate nations are incorporated into the EU, they will never be able to fully join. The treaty forbids this strategy as well.
The European Political Community, a new platform established by French President Emmanuel Macron to enable the EU to interact with its larger neighborhood, is seen as having a role in this situation by some officials.
Even though all of this work has only just begun, it is now obvious that the “Ukraine question” will be the new Commission’s top political priority when it takes office in November of next year. And there is no doubt that it will continue to dominate politics for years to come in Brussels and other EU capitals.