Ukraine doesn’t just deserve EU membership. Its bid could revive and reunify Europe.
President Volodymyr Zelensky submitted Ukraine’s formal application to join the EU on 28 February 2022, four days after the Russian invasion began. Zelensky asked for immediate membership under a new special procedure. Many see this as an extraordinary request given that the process normally takes years, although some legal scholars believe that EU law allows it. On March 11, the EU decided to study the issue and devise an opinion. Now, as the war enters its second month, Europe’s leaders remain undecided—the Dutch prime minister objects to accelerated Ukrainian accession, the Italian prime minister supports it, and French president Emmanuel Macron cautions that fast-tracking a country at war is not realistic.
There is, however, a middle path: granting Ukraine formal EU-candidate status. In determining whether and how to advance Ukraine’s bid, the EU must consider that Ukraine had already made good progress toward meeting the Copenhagen criteria for membership well before the invasion, especially in the areas of democratic governance, public procurement, anticorruption, and the rule of law. Ukraine’s heroic defense against Russia’s brutal aggression has brought to light (and in some cases even consolidated) other gains—notably, institutional trust and national unity as well as new economic reforms. Although rebuilding the country’s economy and infrastructure after the war will be a massive undertaking, strong political will to Europeanize will help to drive the process.
It is not only Ukraine that needs the EU, however. The EU needs a European Ukraine. Europe’s future will depend on containing Russian aggression, and Ukraine has shown that it has the will and resilience to do just that. In other words, the EU should grant Ukraine candidate status not for any extraordinary reason, but because postwar Ukraine will be well positioned to meet membership criteria and will contribute to European strength and unity.
Ukraine’s Prewar Achievements
Over the last eight years, Ukraine has made a steady shift toward Europe, accompanied by piecemeal progress on key democratic reforms. The country established a transparent public-procurement system, for example, which has contributed to a sizeable reduction in political corruption. In addition, a popular decentralization reform has allotted a greater share of local taxes to local governments, making the provision of public goods and services more proficient and, in turn, increasing trust in local governments (if not the central government). Ukraine has also made strides since 2014 in strengthening the rule of law and curbing political corruption, perhaps the toughest challenges for candidates to the EU. At the urging of activists and over the objections of entrenched judicial elites, former president Petro Poroshenko’s administration passed a major package of judicial reforms (eight laws, plus constitutional amendments), which restructured the courts and created new anticorruption bodies. Ultimately, however, these reforms produced only tentative and insufficient changes in judicial behavior. It was disappointment with this slow pace of change, in part, that led many voters to choose Zelensky in 2019.
Ukrainian civil society and Europe have kept pressure on Zelensky’s administration over the last two years, and it has been paying off. Through innovative institutions such as the Public Integrity Council and Ethics Council, Ukraine has managed to restructure the High Judicial Council (HJC) and to establish an anticorruption court. The HJC is the judiciary’s main governing body. Like its counterparts in other postcommunist countries, entrenched judicial elites have dominated Ukraine’s HJC and colluded with politicians in the appointment and dismissal of judges across the country. Shortly before Russia invaded, however, Ukraine achieved a breakthrough—longstanding HJC members resigned to avoid facing scrutiny by the Ethics Council.
Progress Continues Despite (and Because of) the War
Since the invasion, Ukraine’s democratic institutions have proven resilient at the national and subnational levels. The state is steering the war effort, aided by and in coordination with myriad civil society initiatives that sprang up in cities and towns across Ukraine. Whether hunkered down in bomb shelters or lodging with friends or family outside the cities, civil servants, judges, and state officials have continued their work in the most difficult of circumstances. They have passed new legislation, petitioned the International Criminal Court to open a war-crimes investigation, created websites to collect donations and keep the public informed, produced television ads for the armed forces, coordinated supply chains, and even created a website where Russian mothers can find out if their sons are missing in action, have been killed, or been taken prisoner.
Not only have state institutions and civil society banded together effectively, but Zelensky’s government has also pushed forward new reforms in the last month to aid the war effort, including lowering tax rates and simplifying regulations for small and midsized businesses and simplifying customs rules. These wartime reforms will have positive long-term effects for economic development and corruption control. The state’s effectiveness now is laying the foundation for greater trust in state institutions after the war, even if a peacetime president cannot match Zelensky’s current 90 percent approval rating. This trust—so evident as local authorities and citizens in Russian-occupied cities and towns stand united against occupation rule—was fostered in part by those earlier decentralization reforms, which strengthened the bonds between the local government and citizens and boosted civic participation. Ukraine clearly meets and exceeds the EU qualifications of trusted state institutions and strong civil society—markers of a functioning European democracy.
Russia’s invasion is also shattering Ukraine’s image as a regionally divided society. That process had already begun after Russia’s 2014 aggressions in Donbas and Crimea, and by late 2021 public opinion in the traditionally pro-Russian southeast had shifted significantly in favor of the West. The war has only accelerated the national-unification process. Today we see footage of Ukrainian civilians in now-formerly pro-Russian southeast Ukraine, standing firm with Ukrainian flags, blocking Russian tanks, and yelling at Russian occupiers to go home. By the war’s end, there will likely no longer be a “pro-Russian” and “pro-Western” Ukraine, but instead one civic Ukrainian nation that is united in its support of the state regardless of linguistic differences.
Progress will likely speed up and reach new domains after the war. One probable result of the national-unification process, for example, will be a realignment of the Ukrainian party system along the traditional left–right spectrum found in most European democracies. The left in Ukraine will no longer be pro-Russian as it had been before the war. The formation of parties able to debate economic and social policies on their merits—as opposed to foreign-policy orientations—will stabilize the Ukrainian political space, reduce polarization, and hasten the pace of reform.
Policies that in the past were polarizing, such as decommunization laws aimed at ridding Ukraine of Soviet-era symbols and Russia’s preferred interpretations of the Soviet past, will become less contentious. Russia’s war and Ukraine’s resistance will generate new unifying symbols, heroes, and collective memories, making historical debates about the heroes and villains under Nazi and Stalinist rule less salient. Religion could also cease being a source of division. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) has begun to distance itself from the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, whose Patriarch Kirill endorsed Putin’s war against Ukraine. When the war is over, the UOC-MP will likely break with the Russian Orthodox Church and unify with the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), thus mending another internal divide.
Ukrainians’ stance on LGBTQ rights could also shift. Since 2020, Zelensky’s government has tried to pass hate-crime legislation that would protect LGBTQ people, but the efforts have failed due to opposition by the religious lobby. Ukraine’s queer community has mobilized to fight the Russian invasion. Joining forces with LGBTQ people to battle a common enemy could soften the views of Ukraine’s socially conservative population. Moreover, moving toward Europe could also help to push Ukraine to adopt the Istanbul Convention, whose main stumbling block for ratification was the definition of gender identity as socially, rather than biologically, constituted.
If Ukraine has EU-candidate status at the war’s end, its government will be more determined than ever to complete judicial and anticorruption reforms. Ukraine will be ahead of many current EU members—backsliders such as Hungary and Poland, and laggards like Bulgaria—in terms of having both the political will and institutional structures in place to guarantee the rule of law.
A Stronger, More United Europe
Today, after a long period of rising Euroscepticism, the EU itself will benefit from admitting Ukraine to its ranks. Ukrainians’ fight for the European values of freedom and democracy has already done a lot to piece a fragmented Europe back together: Policies on Russia are increasingly aligned; EU member states have committed to phasing out European dependence on Russian energy as soon as possible; infighting between Brussels and Hungary and Poland has subsided; and Denmark has announced a referendum to cancel its previous opt-out from European defense cooperation.
On a practical level, Europe will be facing a hostile and expansionist Russia as a neighbor, and will need a containment strategy. As a new Iron Curtain descends on Europe, the EU will be stronger with Ukraine as a member. Containment will have to go beyond remilitarization and strengthening Europe’s eastern flank. Europe will also need to neutralize Russian propaganda, disinformation, and attempts at political destabilization, while safeguarding democratic competition at home. Having survived as a democracy through eight years of Russian military aggression and hybrid warfare, Ukraine has many lessons to share with its European partners, and its contribution will be critical to the long-term success of a united Europe.
Ukraine’s heroic efforts defending against Putin’s brutal invasion have proven that the Ukrainian state and society are more prepared for EU membership than previously believed. The accession process can follow the normal course while Ukraine rebuilds its infrastructure and economy, bringing it up to the level of joining Europe. But Ukraine needs to know now that it is on the road to membership.
Oxana Shevel is associate professor of political science at Tufts University and the author of Migration, Refugee Policy, and State Building in Postcommunist Europe (2011). Maria Popova is associate professor of political science at McGill University and the author of Politicized Justice in Emerging Democracies: A Study of Courts in Russia and Ukraine (2012).
Copyright © 2022 National Endowment for Democracy
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