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Euroviews. Business as usual won’t do — Ukraine matters for the credibility of European integration

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen talk during their meeting in Kyiv, September 2022
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen talk during their meeting in Kyiv, September 2022 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By Andris Piebalgs, Baron Daniel Janssen, Ciarán Devane, Count Etienne Davignon, Dalia Grybauskaité, Daniel Dăianu, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, Štefan Füle, Yves Leterme
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

What the European Summit says about Ukraine is not only vital for the credibility of the enlargement process but also for the future of the entire European integration project and its ability to secure the freedom, security and prosperity of us all, nine Trustees of Friends of Europe write.

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In just a few days, the leaders of the European Union will meet in Brussels. These meetings of the European Council are normally routine affairs, but this time around nothing less than the future of Europe for decades to come is at stake. 

EU leaders need to decide on the next round of EU enlargement, the most complicated and difficult one thus far. 

It involves the fate of Ukraine, a country at war following the Russian invasion, as well as nine other candidate and aspirant countries, all of them in a delicate geo-strategic situation. 

Never before has it been so important that the EU makes this enlargement a success for it is also a historic opportunity to complete the unification of Europe, to anchor democracy across the continent, to enhance Europe’s security and defence against the dangers of a more confrontational global order and to make Europe a more powerful and influential actor on the world stage.

Yet as the EU moves forward it must avoid repeating the mistakes of the past two decades when too many hesitations, unfulfilled commitments and mixed messages cost us valuable time in the enlargement process, delayed necessary reforms and perpetuated old divisions and disputes that undermined the security of our neighbours to the East, and ultimately our own. 

EU and NATO membership should be used to strengthen our democracies

NATO promised membership to Ukraine and Georgia already back in 2008 but then did not follow through with Membership Action Plans or a clear timetable and roadmap. 

The EU intensified its relations with its eastern neighbours including Ukraine through Association Agreements and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas but at the same time refused these countries the membership perspective that it had given to the Western Balkans. 

The EU’s eastern neighbourhood was perceived by Russia as a grey zone in which Putin could interfere persistently through economic pressures and blackmail, hybrid warfare and even military action, as evidenced in Russia’s invasion of Georgia, illegal annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine. 

Our best defence against Russian aggression, as well as all the other instabilities that plague the eastern neighbourhood and the Western Balkans, is to turn the open door of NATO and the EU into a more dynamic and effective instrument for defending and strengthening our democracies.
A woman walks by a billboard with an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin, reading: "Happy Birthday President'', in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka, October 2023
A woman walks by a billboard with an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin, reading: "Happy Birthday President'', in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka, October 2023AP Photo/Radivoje Pavicic

Putin has attempted to forcibly integrate parts of this grey zone into the Russkiy Mir, (“the Russian World”) denying its people the right to freely choose their destiny. 

Our best defence against Russian aggression, as well as all the other instabilities that plague the eastern neighbourhood and the Western Balkans, is to turn the open door of NATO and the EU into a more dynamic and effective instrument for defending and strengthening our democracies. 

We need to stop saying that we will be ready when our neighbours are ready, and stop pretending to act and to engage, but instead open real and meaningful EU accession negotiations with those candidate countries that have done their homework by meeting the initial conditions set out by the European Commission, and help them become ready. 

It is time to make actions follow our words and to be consistent.

Candidates need a clearer path and more help along the way

Yet to be successful we need not just to follow the enlargement process but build on the lessons learned from previous enlargements. Much has been improved, and useful changes implemented in the past need to be continued and deepened. 

For instance, we have learned that it is counterproductive to simply tick the boxes of reforms and regulations adopted on paper but actually not implemented or only partially implemented in practice. 

It is not easy for countries which have suffered from totalitarian regimes and the centrally planned economy to adopt the EU “acquis” of thousands of pieces of legislation and regulation. The EU must monitor better and help the candidates more. 

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Crowds take part in celebrations marking Croatia's entry into the European Union, on the central square in Zagreb, June 2013
Crowds take part in celebrations marking Croatia's entry into the European Union, on the central square in Zagreb, June 2013Darko Bandic/AP

The process used with the last country to join, Croatia in 2013, of using a “Tracking Record” reflected a more rigorous approach by the EU, and this is the model to build on now. As is the “Fundamental First” approach to ensure that the candidate truly shares (and protects) the EU’s core values before proceeding to the more technical areas of integration. 

We should also continue to set clear criteria to open and close different chapters in the negotiation process so that candidates understand better what is expected of them and have more ownership of the process. 

Just as important in a negotiation process that can extend over several years is to reward candidates that demonstrate that they are making progress by granting them some of the benefits of actual EU membership, such as access to the EU Single Market or regional and structural funds as well as defence programmes, and science and technology cooperation. 

In this way, the candidates can stay motivated, show their populations the benefits of sometimes painful reforms and gain confidence that the EU is serious about accepting them as members. 

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But we cannot leave the process only to the technical negotiations. A sustained political dialogue to resolve conflicts and address common challenges, such as illegal migration, energy security, climate-related extreme weather events and securing our democracies against outside political interference and hybrid warfare, is just as important.

Ukraine is key to our joint European future

Ukraine is central and crucial to the whole process of enlargement. If Russia prevails there and the EU proves incapable of defending a people who have shown such courage and determination to uphold European values, the EU’s credibility will suffer a near-fatal blow. 

Both NATO and the EU will be directly threatened by Russia and Putin will be emboldened to undermine the entire enlargement process and bring more of the eastern neighbourhood and the Western Balkans into Moscow’s sphere of influence.

Help to Ukraine is not an exercise in EU charity. “Ukraine fatigue” is a self-indulgence that would be as detrimental to European security as to Ukraine itself.
Weathered sandbags are stacked around the Monument to Dante Alighieri to protect the statue from possible bombing by Russia in Kyiv, July 2023
Weathered sandbags are stacked around the Monument to Dante Alighieri to protect the statue from possible bombing by Russia in Kyiv, July 2023AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Yet, even in wartime, Kyiv has continued its reforms and met the conditions to open membership negotiations. 

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The EU perspective is the best way to sustain the capacity of the Ukrainian government and people to resist Russian aggression together with a continuing flow of weapons and financial support from Europe and North America. 

Help to Ukraine is not an exercise in EU charity. “Ukraine fatigue” is a self-indulgence that would be as detrimental to European security as to Ukraine itself. 

Thus, what the European Summit says about Ukraine is not only vital for the credibility of the entire enlargement process but also for the future of the entire European integration project and its ability to secure the freedom, security and prosperity of us all.

Let's be honest with ourselves

“Nothing will ever be achieved if all possible objections must first be overcome” is a popular saying coined by Nathan Cummings. EU enlargement may be a strategic necessity, but a long and winding road still lies ahead, requiring patience, steadfastness and focus on behalf of the EU leadership and the candidates alike. 

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An EU of nearly 40 future states will not function without internal EU reform — for instance, in decision-making and the allocation of resources. 

The lack of preparedness must not be on the EU side as it would send a message to the candidates that the EU is not serious about enlargement as it is refusing to bear the consequences. 

So the two preparation processes — in the candidate countries and the EU itself — are of equal importance and must run in tandem and deliver mutually reinforcing results at the same time. 

Internal EU reform cannot be postponed until the end of the enlargement process as it would only slow down and complicate that process. 

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Public opinion and national interest groups and constituencies may see the drawbacks of taking in new members long before they see the benefits (as recently with Dutch farmers and Polish truckers). 

Leaders must be honest with themselves and their public about the challenges and tradeoffs that lie ahead but also work hard to convince the sceptics and build public and political support for EU enlargement. 

The present generation of Europeans will be more secure, but what is really important is that our children and grandchildren will live free and secure lives as well.

Andris Piebalgs is a Senior Fellow at the Florence School of Regulation and former European Commissioner for Development and Energy; Baron Daniel Janssen is Member of the Executive Committee of the Trilateral Commission and former President of the Board of Directors of Solvay; Ciarán Devane is Executive Director of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor for International Relations at Coventry University and former Chief Executive at the British Council; Count Etienne Davignon is President of Friends of Europe, Belgian Minister of State, and former Vice-President of the European Commission; Dalia Grybauskaité is former President of Lithuania and former European Commissioner for Financial Programming and Budget; Daniel Dăianu is President of the Romanian Fiscal Council, a former Member of the European Parliament, and former Finance Minister of Romania; Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović is former President of Croatia; Štefan Füle is former European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy and former Special Envoy to the OSCE and the Western Balkans; and Yves Leterme is Minister of State and former Prime Minister of Belgium. The authors are all Trustees of Friends of Europe.

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