Overcoming EU Accession Challenges in Eastern Europe: Avoiding Purgatory

The EU’s decision to grant Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine membership perspective signals a more strategic approach to enlargement. But an overhaul of the process is needed to enable staged accession and prevent a stalemate.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has placed the EU’s policy toward its eastern neighbors firmly in the spotlight. What used to be covered by a low-risk, technocratic process has become the focus of intense geopolitical scrutiny. In response to the aggression, the EU offered Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine a membership perspective in June 2022—a hugely significant upgrade on the union’s previous position.

In terms of symbolism, the EU’s offer is unprecedented, not only because the union offered potential membership to states to which membership had been firmly denied until very recently but also because the offer would be fast-tracked. Moldova and Ukraine were granted the status of EU candidate countries but given several conditions before they could open accession negotiations. This position stands in stark contrast to the EU’s previous practice of formulating the conditions before granting candidate country status. For Georgia, the EU did articulate the terms the country has to meet before it can be upgraded to the same status.

The accelerated journey to candidate country status masks important challenges ahead. Indeed, some seasoned observers see Moldova and Ukraine as joining a form of “purgatory,” where aspiring Western Balkan countries have been lodged for decades. However, what follows remains uncertain. It is telling that one year after the EU’s momentous decision on Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, there is still no overarching consensus in the union on actual membership for the trio, nor have there been any changes to the design of the EU’s enlargement policy.

At the same time, however attractive the EU may be, the aspiring countries must still fulfill stringent requirements. That the fulfillment of these requirements cannot be taken for granted is all too evident in the case of Georgia—long regarded as a front-runner in European integration in the EU’s eastern neighborhood. In addition, the countries’ domestic elites, who are bent on rent extraction and the benefits offered by political and economic ties with Russia, are unlikely to easily abandon their lucrative connections. The pivotal challenge is how to balance the geopolitical imperative of supporting these embattled states with the extremely tough merit-driven demands the EU is making of them.

While EU membership may be a geopolitical priority for Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, there will be no circumventing the extensive, complex, and expensive alignment with the EU’s ever-expanding and -changing rulebook, called the acquis, which is now even larger than the estimated 80,000 pages adopted by the Central European countries that joined the union in 2004. Fortunately, the three Eastern European states are not starting from scratch, as they have been busy harmonizing their laws and practices with those of the EU in the framework of the Association Agreements between the EU and each country. These agreements aim to promote political association and economic integration with the union but fall short of membership.

The key mechanism in the agreements is legal approximation: extensive, binding, and asymmetrical commitments to align the laws and institutions of the partner countries with the acquis. So, thanks to the agreements, state officials and civil society in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine are extremely familiar with the acquis and have a detailed and comprehensive understanding of the requirements of EU membership. The three nations have met many benchmarks—an achievement on which they can capitalize in the accession negotiation process.

The Association Agreements, which include a Deep and Comprehensive Free-Trade Area (DCFTA) for each partner state, have been beneficial for transferring EU rules and regulations to these countries. But as Carnegie’s Richard Youngs has argued, the agreements have been hardly sufficient to foment “the kind of direct democratic and security agency [the three countries] now need as the core pillar of their political resilience.”

The Association Agreements are loaded with detailed technical commitments but otherwise have little political resonance. This emphasis on technical detail exposes the lack of a long-term vision in the EU’s promotion of integration, security, and democracy in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus outside the enlargement process.

This shortcoming has been most evident in Georgia, which has seen a significant downturn in democratic standards under the Georgian Dream government since 2016. The downturn has accelerated since 2020—while the Association Agreement and the DCFTA have been in force. Indeed, the deterioration in relations with the EU is striking for a country that for a long time presented itself as a front-runner in European integration. High politics in Georgia resembles Ukraine under former president Viktor Yanukovych in 2010–2014, when that country’s elites engaged in predatory state capture with the tacit support of Russia.

Georgia’s downturn shows that it is the ebb and flow of elites’ shifting preferences, rather than the EU’s power of attraction, that shapes relations with the union. Russia has provided Georgia with incentives including the restoration of trade flows, which previously were blocked by Moscow and now may be helping Russia to bypass Western sanctions. These economic opportunities revive the Georgian economy and boost the chances of the Georgian Dream party winning the 2024 parliamentary election. But with a staunchly pro-European population, Georgia is likely heading for a political crisis. As happened in Ukraine in 2013, Georgia’s U-turn away from Europe and toward Russia may trigger a popular revolt.

In Moldova, it was the coming to power of a pro-reform, pro-European president and government in 2020–2021, rather than any stimulus provided by the country’s Association Agreement, that spurred domestic reforms, including an anticorruption drive. Despite receiving more EU assistance per capita than Ukraine, Moldova remains hampered by weak institutions. The arrival of the pro-reform forces has exposed the merely declarative nature of the European aspirations expressed by the previous rent-extracting elites. In particular, those elites left the country in a dire economic situation and hollowed out the state institutions by starving them of officials and expertise, without which root-and-branch reforms cannot be launched. Moldova is experiencing a perfect storm as it also faces security threats from Russia and the breakaway region of Transnistria and has to deal with refugees from Ukraine, high energy prices, and an economic crisis, all of which Russia seeks to exploit by destabilizing the country through its proxies.

Russia preys on any vulnerability or weakness in its neighbors to derail their domestic reforms and integration with the EU. Moldova’s President Maia Sandu and her Party of Action and Solidarity are firefighting in trying to stabilize the country and rely heavily on EU support for long-overdue reforms, while voters are increasingly impatient with never-ending promises of change. This means that Moldova’s window of opportunity may close with the next presidential and parliamentary elections, due in 2024 and 2025 respectively, if self-serving elites return to power to engage in state capture once again.

In June 2022, the EU presented Moldova with nine political conditions, and Ukraine with seven, for the opening of accession negotiations. The high priority that the two countries put on accession—as EU membership is now an existential issue for Ukraine in particular—means that the political pressure attached to these requirements is having an effect: the fulfillment of these conditions is underway in both countries. In this respect, Moldova and Ukraine could provide powerful inspiration for Georgian society.

On the one hand, the process of legal approximation is relatively straightforward and fairly advanced in some areas in Moldova and Ukraine. On the other hand, implementation, especially involving businesses and state agencies, will be more difficult—in Ukraine because of the war and in Moldova because of limited state capacity.

While Moldova is comparable with the smaller Western Balkan countries in terms of size, Ukraine is significantly larger, meaning that its admission to the EU will have a commensurately greater impact on the union’s functioning, policies, and finances. In the EU’s 2004 and 2007 enlargements, which took in twelve new member states, Poland was the most populous accession country, with 38 million people. The prewar population of Ukraine was over 40 million. So, Ukraine could become the sixth-largest EU member state by population, with a huge agricultural sector and a considerable industrial sector, especially if Kyiv recovers the currently occupied Donbas region.

Thus, to admit Ukraine, the EU would need to reconsider its Common Agricultural Policy and reform its industrial policy. Given Ukraine’s size and level of development, the country would attract considerable financial resources under various policies, from agriculture to regional and structural funds. This would have a major impact on the redistribution of financial resources and subsidies among the existing member states, as several of them would move from being net beneficiaries to net contributors to the EU budget. This budgetary pressure associated with enlargement provides an opportunity to reform EU policies, including agricultural policy. The accession of an agriculturally strong Ukraine would incentivize the EU to abolish the current area-based agricultural subsidies, which massively benefit large landowners and vast agroindustrial conglomerates, in favor of defined natural and environmental services, such as nature conservation. At the same time, Ukraine’s accession would strengthen the EU as a geostrategic agricultural power. After enlargement, the union’s share of global wheat exports would be around 30 percent, making the EU a dominant player in the world market.

In Moldova, which is much smaller than Ukraine but likewise predominantly agricultural, the biggest challenge is the reintegration of Transnistria. The region has taken advantage of economic connectivity and access to the EU’s single market by becoming part of Moldova’s DCFTA, but this connectivity has not yet translated into political understanding between Tiraspol and Chişinău. The outcome of Russia’s war in Ukraine will shape Transnistria’s position vis-à-vis Moldova because Russia’s defeat in Ukraine would enable Moldova to reduce threats from Transnistria and perhaps reintegrate the region in the long term.

Notwithstanding the war, Ukraine is better positioned in terms of expertise and capacity than Georgia or Moldova. This is because Ukraine has benefited from the EU’s innovative support for institution building. Indeed, the EU’s involvement in Ukraine has been unprecedented in comparison with other third countries, with the European Commission pioneering a new way of supporting a range of domestic reforms, including public administration and decentralization to empower local communities in political and financial terms. These reforms have strengthened the country’s capacity at the center and in the regions and, hence, its overall resilience in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

That said, Ukraine continues to face the daunting task of reducing systemic corruption while fighting off Russian aggression. The war has led to the securitization of corruption—that is, corruption has become a security threat, not least because it puts the authorities’ behavior in the spotlight as Ukraine depends on Western military and economic support. The EU is in a powerful position to support Kyiv’s reform efforts, because through the chapters of the acquis on the judiciary and fundamental rights and on justice, freedom, and security, the EU can scrutinize and demand the fundamental reforms needed to curb corruption.

The fact that Moldova and Ukraine are familiar with the acquis and have achieved an array of approximation and implementation thanks to the Association Agreements should not be underestimated. This achievement demonstrates the two countries’ willingness and ability to move fast across several chapters of the acquis during the accession negotiations.

Ukraine, in particular, wants to move quickly. Kyiv’s determination amid the war is only too evident. The Ukrainian government has already embarked on self-screening—scrutinizing its own level of alignment with the acquis—a process due to be completed by summer 2023. This attitude replicates the preemptive approach of Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia, an approach that allowed these countries to complete their EU accession negotiations in less than three years before joining the union in 2004.

The EU granted Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine a membership perspective as a sign of geopolitical solidarity in the face of Russia’s aggression. There is an element of déjà vu in this decision: in many regards, these countries follow in the footsteps of the Western Balkans, which were granted the prospect of membership after the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s. Now, Moldova and Ukraine are to enter a waiting room and will be ensconced there for some time. This would be a reasonable prospect if the accession process were working well. But it is not.

The 2004 and 2007 enlargements were widely proclaimed as the EU’s most successful foreign policy. Building on this accomplishment, the union offered the Western Balkan countries a membership perspective, yet the result hardly qualifies as a success. Out of eight countries, each much smaller than Ukraine, only Croatia has so far joined the EU—in 2013, after a ten-year accession process.

The EU enlargement process has become so dysfunctional that it has been described as “meaningless and opaque,” “deprioritizing [and] neglect,” and “a showcase of duplicity and double talk.” Max Bergmann of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has warned that “unfortunately, a Balkans-style purgatory is the fate that awaits Ukraine as well—unless the enlargement process gets unstuck.” Various analyses have diagnosed how that process got stuck in the first place. In a nutshell, it has suffered from two problems: excessive technocracy and excessive politicization.

Because many EU member states have only a lukewarm commitment to enlargement, the European Commission has attempted to stay under the political radar by giving the benefit of the doubt to self-serving elites in the Western Balkans. Having lost its leadership role on enlargement, the commission has avoided openly tackling important and sensitive issues in aspiring states, such as corruption or democratic backsliding.

Instead, the commission has focused on technical issues to mask the lack of political enthusiasm for enlargement. The EU has ended up relying on accession as a distant prospect and then pushing for extensive technical harmonization in the hope that this would suffice to resolve intensely political problems. In short, the EU has adopted an overtly technocratic approach to give the illusion of progress.

Excessive technocracy has gone hand in hand with excessive politicization. The successful 2004 and 2007 enlargements were driven by the commission, which decided on the candidate countries’ progression, specified their conditions, and ensured their compliance during the accession negotiations. Since then, the member states have effectively nationalized the EU’s enlargement policy by taking on stronger oversight of the process. Every stage of the process now needs to be unanimously approved by all twenty-seven member states.

Some members have abused this power, resulting in long delays as the enlargement process has become hostage to national interests and bilateral disputes. The opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia was delayed for seventeen years by the successive vetoes of Greece, France, and Bulgaria. Member states can easily delay or derail the process simply by having a veto over any decision on progress for aspiring countries.

Given this overpoliticization, EU membership negotiations amount to little more than “rituals of opening and closure [of negotiation chapters] that . . . only the specialists are able to decipher,” in the words of Pierre Mirel, a former director at the commission. As a result, progress has been detached from merit. The longer the process has gone on, the weaker the motivation of candidate countries to carry out reforms has become. As the EU’s political influence in the Western Balkans has waned, political elites have merely paid lip service to enlargement.

This excessive politicization shows that without the political will of all EU member states, the technical process—however well led by the commission—remains largely inconsequential. All in all, the enlargement process has failed to sway the Western Balkan countries in favor of systemic political and economic change. Some analysts even argue that EU conditionality has allowed the region’s self-serving ruling elites to consolidate their position by providing money, power, and glory.

Therefore, the Western Balkans are hardly a role model for Moldova and Ukraine to emulate. The slow progress in some aspiring countries has further undermined support for enlargement among some EU member states, producing a self-reinforcing circle of enlargement apathy.

Without doubt, the EU’s enlargement strategy needs an overhaul. The union updated its methodology in 2020 but without making major changes or streamlining the process. Granting candidate country status to Moldova, Ukraine, and potentially Georgia appears to indicate a more strategic approach to enlargement. But are the EU institutions and member states committed to making such a shift? Are they ready to revitalize the process to enable the trio to join?

This is far from assured. For many member states, the offer of potential membership was a symbolic gesture of solidarity. It did not espouse a meaningful commitment to admit Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine in the foreseeable future—as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen conceded in May 2023.

As the EU member states remain profoundly divided over the potential accession of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, the dysfunction of the current process can be relied on to delay it. In practice, this means any candidate country can easily remain in limbo for years, regardless of its performance. In May 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron said it would take decades for Ukraine to join the EU. More recently, he embraced the imperative of enlargement for geopolitical reasons while promoting the idea of a Europe of different speeds. Thus, the symbolism captured in the rhetoric of the EU’s geopolitical awakening is not yet matched by a commitment to embrace aspiring countries as member states in the foreseeable future.

A membership perspective can be credible only if a viable pathway to membership is in place. Given the EU’s dismal track record on this front, much effort is needed to restore the union’s credibility in readiness for enlargement. Yet, it is telling that many EU and national officials do not see a problem at all—they regard the process as viable and effective. Sometimes, the argument is heard that because the Western Balkans have waited for a long time, Moldova and Ukraine should go through a similarly long process and certainly should not be able to overtake them, regardless of their performance. It is hardly an exciting vision.

Various proposals have been put forward to overcome the enlargement stalemate and provide an impetus for the EU’s transformation into a full-fledged geopolitical actor. In particular, the idea of gradual accession to the EU has gained ground as a model to revive the accession process by both sustaining the incentives offered to candidate countries and easing the concerns of member states reluctant to enlarge further.

According to the staged accession model developed by experts at the Centre for European Policy Studies, accession would happen in four stages. The process would still be centered on the chapters of the acquis but organized into clusters. The EU would monitor the performance of the applicant states to create conditions for a transparent and merit-based progression through the four proposed stages. Each stage would have its own criteria, the achievement of which would allow candidates to progress to the next stage; that would release funding and enable increased participation in the EU institutions, before full membership is reached in the final stage.

This model would end the current enlargement impasse by offering gradual incentives, while progress could be reversed for backsliding candidate countries. This proposal is extensive and comprehensive as it blends preparation for membership with EU reforms, including changes to the union’s treaties. However, it is also the most ambitious and demanding plan in terms of the up-front overhaul of the enlargement strategy.

There are other, less comprehensive proposals to address the current dysfunction. For example, the Partnership for Enlargement proposed by researchers at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) would offer intermediate benefits on the way to membership. These incentives would include accelerated integration into the EU’s single market, financial support, strengthened assistance for climate and energy transitions, and stronger cooperation on security and foreign policy. Within the partnership, accession countries would therefore derive earlier benefits from the enlargement process before fully joining the EU institutions and acquiring full voting rights.

Overall, the proposals floated aim to restore the credibility of the commitment, incentives, and functionality of the accession process. To achieve this, the EU needs to revamp its whole approach to accession to safeguard the process by offering robust conditionality, intermediate stages, funding, and rewards.

EU member states’ divergent positions on enlargement and a lack of leadership in the EU institutions remain stumbling blocks to any reforms. In June 2022, the European Council called for the “gradual integration” of the Western Balkan countries while they are still in the accession process, and in May 2023, the commission president introduced a four-point proposal for the Western Balkans, which included integration into the EU’s single market and digital market.

This approach could also apply to Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, especially as Ukraine is quite advanced in digital services. And yet, it is indicative that the EU offered the plan only to the Western Balkans, missing the chance to revive its whole enlargement strategy. In late 2023, the commission is due to issue recommendations on whether Moldova and Ukraine have met the conditions needed to be upgraded to accession countries and open negotiations. Yet, the EU again remains silent on reforms of its overall enlargement strategy.

The fact that the EU is discussing gradual integration before accession indicates a growing recognition of the dysfunctional status quo. However, the remedy remains unclear. Given the challenges, some analysts favor open-ended affiliation or association, rather than accession, for the aspiring countries. Others still regard the Association Agreements as a viable tool for integrating Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, despite the distinct limitations and the lack of political impetus in these agreements. Faced with divergent priorities and internal disagreements, the EU tends to prioritize a technocratic approach. Yet, such an approach looks decidedly incongruous in the context of the war in Ukraine.

So, a year after the EU’s momentous decision, there are no agreed ways forward on enlargement reform and, as a result, no clarity as to what is going to happen to Moldova and Ukraine in the meantime. This impasse risks a repeat of the experience in the Western Balkans, where the EU’s lukewarm commitment weakened the incentives to adopt Europe-oriented reforms.

Against this backdrop, political resolve is needed to prevent another enlargement stalemate. At a minimum, the EU member states should agree in principle to open accession negotiations by the end of 2023 if Moldova and Ukraine have largely met their conditions. This would provide a powerful signal for Georgian elites on their strategic failure to achieve candidate country status.

In parallel, the EU needs to switch from unanimity to qualified majority voting for routine decisions on accession negotiations, such as the opening and closing of chapters of the acquis. (Qualified majority voting is a form of EU decisionmaking that does not require unanimity but only a majority, while taking into account member states’ population sizes.) Member states can agree on this switch without the need for onerous revisions to the EU’s treaties. Unanimity should be reserved for milestone decisions, such as closing accession negotiations. This move would reduce the opportunities for individual member states to block or delay the accession process and would put the commission back in the driver’s seat.

EU leaders depicted Russia’s aggression against Ukraine as a “tectonic shift in European history.” The EU member states showed exceptional unity in delivering symbolic support to Moldova and Ukraine by quickly granting them candidate country status in the landmark decision of June 2022. In the meantime, the EU has provided massive support to Moldova and especially Ukraine in the form of macroeconomic assistance and military supplies.

This act appeared to indicate that with political leadership, a renewed sense of purpose and unity can emerge in the EU in a very short time because, in the words of the ECFR researchers, the “successful integration [of the EU’s eastern neighbors] will be crucial to the entire future European order and the new self-identification of the EU as a geopolitical actor.”

But after a year, notwithstanding various proclamations, that integration has yet to become a priority for the EU’s foreign policy. A sense of purpose has been lacking when it comes to the follow-up, especially for Moldova and Ukraine. Devising a viable and coherent approach to EU enlargement remains a strategic matter that needs more concerted and united leadership from the large EU member states, especially Germany, which so far has not been forthcoming.

As it is, there are no safeguards for any future enlargement steps, as the experience of the Western Balkans over recent decades indicates. On its own, candidate country status for Moldova and Ukraine does not imply that accession negotiations will be opened when the two countries fulfill their conditions, nor that once opened, the negotiations can be concluded in a reasonable time frame. At the same time, long delays increase the risk of external and domestic obstacles destabilizing these countries.

There seems to be a growing realization in Brussels that either there must be reform of the enlargement strategy to enable staged accession or enlargement will remain stuck. The latter scenario would result in an increasingly damaging policy failure for the EU as a whole and leave the Eastern European countries in a dangerous geopolitical gray zone. The challenges that the EU faces appear daunting, as was the case in the early 1990s, when communism collapsed in Central and Eastern Europe. Above all, the EU member states and institutions ought to become oriented toward goals, rather than processes, to make enlargement a success again.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz outlined the end goal for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in May 2023: “The bitter chapter in the history of our continent, created by [Russian President] Vladimir Putin in his imperialistic madness, will end with the entry of free Ukraine into the European Union as a full member.” But the way to deliver this goal has yet to be worked out.

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