One of Vladimir Putin’s mistakes when plotting his invasion of Ukraine was to underestimate European solidarity. The Russian president’s territorial aggression moved the continent’s centre of strategic gravity, but not in the direction he had intended. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, made an emergency application for EU membership within days of the invasion. The country’s candidacy was formally accepted within months.
At a summit in Kyiv last week, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said it was impossible to conceive of a future for the EU without Ukraine. That would not have been said before the war. Candidacy for EU membership is less important to Mr Zelenskiy’s war effort than military hardware, but weapons have also flowed from European states. Military aid and institutional integration are two arms of the same embrace. That reflects a psychological adjustment in the west – a shaking off of complacency and belated recognition that Mr Putin is a tyrant who cannot be appeased.
For many Ukrainians, participation in the European project has expressed the ambition of national self-determination since the 2013 Maidan uprising, triggered by the refusal of Viktor Yanukovych, the country’s pro-Moscow president at the time, to sign a trade agreement with Brussels. The EU flag is a more potent symbol of democratic aspiration in Ukraine than it is in most member states.
There is still a significant gap between the ideal of solidarity and the reality of EU accession. The bloc exists by virtue of political will, but that is expressed as a complex edifice of treaties and institutions. To meet the entry criteria, previous candidates from eastern Europe went through arduous processes of political and economic reform. They worked hard (with varying degrees of success) to shake off the corrupting legacy of communist authoritarian rule. None began the process in the middle of a war. All were smaller than Ukraine.
The EU’s current structures would need reform to accommodate such a populous and economically debilitated new member. Everything from the allocation of seats in the European parliament to agricultural subsidies would have to be revised. EU membership can lead to increased regional disparities – which would need careful management in a postwar environment. Ukrainian accession would tilt the balance of influence on the European Council away from the EU’s 20th-century western core towards its 21st-century joiners in the east. Some founder members suspect that process has gone far enough already. The extent of continental solidarity would be tested by a process that turned net recipients from the shared budget into net contributors.
When speaking of Ukraine’s EU membership, Ms Von der Leyen and other continental leaders are careful to match certainty about the destination with vagueness over the timetable. It isn’t going to happen quickly. There is a general recognition in Brussels that Kyiv’s candidacy is unique, but there is not much flex in the rules and enormous wariness of bending them (as Eurosceptic British politicians learned to their frustration when negotiating Brexit).
But Ukraine must not be fobbed off with abstractions. Kyiv can be offered treaties and a security partnership that illuminate a credible path to full membership. The EU is slow and inflexible much of the time, but in a crisis it can be remarkably innovative. Russia’s aggression has been the galvanising force, giving new political impetus to continental solidarity. That energy must now be harnessed to the practical task of guaranteeing Ukraine’s future in the club of European democracies.