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What's at stake for Europe in Ukraine's EU membership talks?

The Ukrainian flag, top, flies with others European flags outside the European Parliament ,in Strasbourg, France
The Ukrainian flag, top, flies with others European flags outside the European Parliament ,in Strasbourg, France Copyright Jean-Francois Badias/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Jean-Francois Badias/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Sergio Cantone
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A new budget, rule of law, defence, and security are the top priorities for opening the European Union's gates to Kyiv. Will Ukraine and the EU be up to the challenge?

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By opening the membership negotiations with Ukraine, the EU has decided to face its biggest moment of truth in decades.

The eastern European country of some 44 million is by far the biggest potential member state — by surface area, it is larger than the bloc's current number one, France — and integrating it could prove to be a major existential matter.

During the "Big Bang" enlargement talks in the early 2000s — the first round of integration of the former socialist countries, some of which had been under Soviet influence for decades — the EU negotiators had a mantra: "Big countries, big problems."

That enlargement process, the EU's largest to date, opened in 1998 at the Conference of London, under a British EU presidency. It was completed in 2004 with the accession of Poland, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Also included were Cyprus and Malta, the only new members that did not share the experience of an full-on socialist or communist regime.

The entire process took place in a relatively favourable environment, with predictions of general economic growth and a non-openly assertive Russia. But 20 years on, the situation has become quite the opposite.

Another world, another story

Most EU member states have been struggling with financial crises, including burdensome public debts and deficits, as well as massive inflows of migrants and refugees. Ukraine, meanwhile, is defending itself from Russian forces in the biggest war Europe has seen since 1945.

In terms of finances and human lives, peer-to-peer conflicts come with costs far higher than so-called "ethnic conflicts" or remote and ill-defined "wars on terror".

Facing a huge demographic loss thanks to the war, Ukraine is now searching for peace, political stability, clear and safe borders and functional infrastructure.

This photo taken from a drone video provided by Ukraine Patrol Police, shows devastation in Chasiv Yar, an eastern Ukrainian city Russia is assaulting, Ukraine, Monday, April
This photo taken from a drone video provided by Ukraine Patrol Police, shows devastation in Chasiv Yar, an eastern Ukrainian city Russia is assaulting, Ukraine, Monday, April AP/AP

Its closest supporters in the EU understand this.

"From the beginning of the war in Ukraine, we talk about recovery and not simply reconstruction," said Krzystof Kubon, the foreign and European policy adviser of Civic Platform, the party of the Polish PM Donald Tusk.

"Because recovery creates opportunity for the European state economies to grow and to expand and to get Ukraine closer to the European Union," Kubon explained.

EU diplomats and officials estimate that the new enlargement will cost €186 billion over seven years, the duration of the multiannual financial framework. The entire EU budget in 2022 totalled €170bn.

Having said that, the EU's entire long-term budget — the seven-year multiannual financial framework from 2021 to 2027 — amounts to slightly over €1.13 trillion.

This budgetary provision was set before the Ukrainian war and the reboot of the enlargement process.

However, while integrating an economically devastated Ukraine into the EU would be extremely demanding, especially fiscally, it wouldn't be impossible.

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Mission possible

For one, budgetary lines always depend on the political will of the member states — a delicate matter of balancing political circumstances, geopolitical priorities, and domestic interests.

The entire process of integrating Ukraine will require a deep redesign of the EU budget, demanding concerted financial efforts from the current member states.

Current net beneficiaries like Poland, Spain, Portugal, Hungary and others are to become net contributors, while the old net contributors could be called to spend more money on the common budget. That, in turn, will require a complex redefinition of the EU cohesion policy.

Kubon argued that if one day the advantages of the cohesion policy for a "Big Bang" member like Poland were to become history, the country would enjoy new opportunities for growth — but only if Ukraine joined the EU at a moderate pace.

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Farm workers take a pause for lunch during the sunflowers harvesting on a field in Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine
Farm workers take a pause for lunch during the sunflowers harvesting on a field in Donetsk region, eastern UkraineLeo Correa/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.

"From the Polish perspective, if we look at Germany, the biggest net contributor when Poland joined the EU, we see our future as bright," he said.

"When you look at the economic relations between Poland and Germany, you can find a profitable synergy of the two economies."

According to Tusk's centre-right Polish liberal conservatism, Germany's net contribution to the EU budget, particularly for the cohesion policies, became a fruitful investment as Central European countries entered the mighty German manufacturing area of interest.

Seen through Polish eyes, there is a chance for Ukraine and Poland to replicate the same scheme.

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Black soil worth its weight in gold

Ukraine has formidable farming opportunities: 71% of its land mass features the most fertile soil in the world, and the humus-rich "chernozem" (an old Russian word for "black soil") covers about 51%.

As an indicator of the potential that it offers, the Ukrainian land market was drastically expanded to private investors on 1 January 2022, just weeks before Russia's full-scale invasion.

While most of the big investors are either Luxembourg-based agribusinesses like Kernel, owned by local oligarchs, or transnational companies from the US, China and the Gulf states, Ukrainian land could, in theory, become eligible for the EU's common agricultural policy (CAP) funding, especially after the war.

A general view shows the EU Council building Justus Lipsius
A general view shows the EU Council building Justus LipsiusOlivier Matthys/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved

However, the prospect of Ukraine's entry into the EU agricultural sector has not made existing member states too happy. Polish farmers, for example, stood up massively against the favourable import regime of Ukrainian grain set up by the EU to support Kyiv's war effort.

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But this is just one problem that has arisen. Integrating Ukraine, Moldova, the Western Balkan countries and, perhaps one day, Georgia would require drastic changes to the EU's decision-making processes.

Forcing the issue

After the European Commission's troubled experiences with Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria, the question about the EU institutions' ability to enforce the rule of law has become unavoidable.

Every EU member state, even the smallest or the worst off, is a sovereign state with the right to vote, abstain, or veto if it is so inclined.

Any domestic shift that would see a member state less inclined to respect — or even block — the decisions made in Brussels would jeopardise the union's long-term viability.

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Some argue that revising the EU cohesion policies, the CAP, and the rule of law principles would require a deep and comprehensive reform of the EU's core institutions and their decision-making mechanisms before the enlargement.

Since the 2004 "Big Bang", the union's leadership has been focused on reforming the European Council's decision-making process, which grants every member state the power of veto, and expanding the list of policy areas covered by qualified majority voting to ensure the EU can function properly.

According to Lukas Macek from the Paris-based Jaques Delors Institute, the issues of decision-making and the rule of law are tricky enough as it is.

"The enlargement to an EU of more than 30 member states can be as much part of the solution as a worsening of the problem," Macek told Euronews. "Enlargement can move the lines where the 27 member states are stuck.

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"Unfortunately, the current political dynamics do not seem to be moving in this direction."

In the end, with mounting Euroscepticism across the EU and anti-enlargement positions increasingly entrenched in public opinion, the member states might opt for stability over change.

"I see that there is no political will in the majority of the member states to reform and to change the European Union," Kubon said. "Among the main EU political forces, like my own political party in Poland... as well as the party of (Greek) Prime Minister Mitsotakis and other EPP members, there no such a big will to undertake changes."

The solution, Macek argued, could come from a smaller-step approach.

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"The most important issue to tackle is that of reforming the enlargement process itself to make it more progressive, more nuanced, more motivating for applicants, more reassuring for members and also more reversible."

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