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What a difference a war makes. Four months ago, the leaders of France, Germany and Italy would not have dreamed of supporting Ukraine’s candidacy for EU membership. But last Thursday, there they were in a sunny Kyiv, all emphatically endorsing it. If next week’s EU summit agrees, following the positive opinion just given by the European Commission, this really could be, as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy put it after meeting his visitors from luckier parts of Europe, "one of the key European decisions of the first third of the 21st century". It could mark the beginning of a further round of eastern enlargement of the EU, as significant as the first big post-cold war round in the 2000s, which in two waves took in countries from Estonia to Bulgaria. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus scores again: "war is the father of all things".
First of all, Ukraine has earned it. Second, it is in the long-term strategic interest of all Europeans. The second reason is even more important than the first.
Ukraine’s aspiration to join the EU did not start yesterday. I will never forget standing on a freezing Maidan in Kyiv during the Orange Revolution in 2004, amid a sea of European flags such as I have never seen in any EU capital. Ten years later, the 2014 protests in Kyiv were sparked by President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of an association agreement with the EU – and those demonstrations were christened the Euromaidan.
The war has confirmed this settled will of the Ukrainian nation. From the outset, Zelenskiy made candidacy for EU membership one of his three main asks to the west, alongside his urgent request for more weapons and sanctions. A recent opinion poll conducted in Ukraine’s western and central regions – polling was impossible in the east because of the war – found 89% support for EU membership.
Who can doubt that Ukrainians have been fighting and dying for Europe? Explaining the commission’s positive recommendation, a senior Brussels official said: "The commission does not forget that Ukraine is the only country in Europe where people died, where people were shot at because they were on the streets carrying EU flags. Now we cannot tell them, ‘Sorry, guys, you were waving the wrong flags.’"
But this is also a strategic choice for Europe as a whole. At issue is not just Europe’s second-largest country. Besides recommending that Ukraine should be given candidate status, "on the understanding that" certain specific steps will be taken, the commission proposes the same status for Moldova, which is sandwiched between Ukraine and EU member Romania, "on the understanding that" somewhat broader changes are made. It has also recommended opening accession negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia. Beyond that, there will be the rest of the western Balkans, Georgia and potentially, one day, a democratic Belarus.
Handled right, this second great eastern enlargement would make the European Union not just bigger but also more self-sufficient in food, stronger militarily and with more potential for economic growth. We Europeans would end up better able to defend our interests and values as we sit precariously between a revanchist Russia, a rising China and a declining United States. This widening of the EU would also require further deepening, since otherwise a community of 35 member states would be dysfunctional. In the long run, the inclusion of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia would mean that Russia would finally have to reconcile itself to having lost an empire – and start seeking a role as a modern nation state. (Britain shows how long that process can take.) So, this second wave of eastern enlargement would be another big step towards a Europe whole and free.
Yet there are many ifs and buts along the way. Countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Portugal are still trying to complicate, if not block, this very first step. Even if, as seems likely, the "big three" of the EU – with Mario Draghi’s Italy taking the place vacated by Britain – prevail at next week’s EU summit, will there be the political will to sustain a long-term strategy for enlargement? The costs of reconstruction in Ukraine will be huge. War damage is already estimated at $150bn (£122bn). Ukraine has a chance to build back better, but only if substantial European funds for reconstruction are effectively linked to major reforms, including the battle against corruption.
Currently there is popular support for this step inside the EU: 66% of European citizens approved of opening the door to Ukraine in a Eurobarometer survey in April. An average of 57% of respondents in 10 selected European countries did so in a recent European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) poll. But the ECFR figures for France, Germany and Italy were just under 50%. As the wave of wartime sympathy with Ukraine subsides, and all of Europe is hit by the economic consequences of both the Covid pandemic and Vladimir Putin’s war, that support may erode. Mediterranean countries say, "You keep talking about the east, but what about the south?" Dire conditions in the Middle East and Africa, exacerbated by soaring food prices because of missing Ukrainian and Russian grain exports, may result in new crises there.
Another danger is that widening could go ahead without the necessary deepening. That was the big flaw of the first eastern enlargement. The result: Viktor Orbán has demolished democracy in Hungary with the help of billions of euros in EU funds and, thanks to the requirements for unanimity on such questions, recently held the rest of the EU to ransom over a new round of sanctions on Russia.
More likely, the momentum of enlargement would stall. Ukraine and Moldova might find themselves in the limbo that much of the western Balkans has endured for nearly two decades. North Macedonia has waited 17 years, since 2005, to proceed from candidate status to actual negotiations, thanks to blocking first by Greece and then by Bulgaria. Macedonians have kept the faith, but in Serbia support for EU membership has declined from 70% to 37%. Local elites elsewhere might conclude that their best bet is to play Europe, China and Russia off against each other, as the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucić, does. The EU’s eastern and south-eastern perimeter would then be an unstable mush, inviting penetration by China, Russia and other hostile powers.
So the path ahead is strewn with obstacles and possible wrong turnings. Still, as the Chinese proverb has it, a journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step. At least this first step is in the right direction.
Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist.
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