European Union leaders are due to decide this week whether to grant Ukraine formal EU candidate status. This is a critically important moment for Ukrainians that will also shape the future direction of the entire continent.
Granting the EU candidacy would signify European solidarity with Ukraine in its bloody struggle against Russian aggression. It would also mean that Ukraine must pass EU reforms that will eventually root out systemic corruption and dismantle the country’s rotten oligarchy.
Oligarch-induced corruption has hampered Ukraine’s progress since the country regained independence in 1991. This led to two people power revolutions and paved the way for victory in the 2019 presidential election of political outsider Volodymyr Zelenskyy with a mandate to clean up the country.
The prospect of a reformed Ukraine integrating the EU is considered an existential threat by Moscow and was one of the key factors in the decision to launch a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Come what may , Vladimir Putin is determined to prevent the Europeanization of Ukraine.
On June 18, an important step was taken when the European Council formally recommended that Ukraine be granted candidate status. “Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspectivesaid European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen when announcing the decision. “We want them to live the European dream with us.”
Ukraine’s candidacy was also endorsed by the leaders of Germany, France, Italy and Romania during a recent visit to Kyiv. The next step is to receive unanimous approval for candidate status from all 27 members of the European Union. This seems likely to happen as even Hungary, which is widely seen as the most pro-Kremlin EU member state, has declared its support for Ukraine’s bid.
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Despite this optimistic outlook, it will probably take many more years before Ukraine can hope for full EU membership. Applicants must adopt EU standards on democratic principles and incorporate 80,000 pages of rules governing justice systems and commerce.
Ukraine is also not the only country seeking to deepen its ties with the European Union. There is currently a number of other countries also trying to make the transition from candidacy to EU membership. Turkey first applied in 1987 and received candidate status in 1999, but talks have since stalled. Meanwhile, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania have all had candidate status for several years and remain ahead of Ukraine in the EU queue.
Meeting the criteria for EU membership will be a demanding process. While Ukraine is considerably freer than Russia, Ukrainians remain prisoners of a deeply flawed system inherited from the Soviet era.
During the first years of independence, Ukrainian politicians and bureaucrats gave the country’s resources and main assets to family members, cronies and crooks. This helped create a small number of oligarchic clans able to control Ukraine’s political and economic agenda while hampering attempts to establish the rule of law.
EU membership would force Ukraine to establish a rule of law and an independent judiciary. Ukraine will have to adopt anti-trust laws to dismantle monopolies and gigantic conglomerates. He is to undertake postponed plans to privatize thousands of state-owned enterprises by selling them at market prices to legitimate buyers. Many Ukrainian state-owned enterprises remain sources of corruption. Their sale will eliminate corruption and influence peddling while providing opportunities for entrepreneurial innovation.
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Granting EU candidate status to Ukraine would serve to recognize that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is also a declaration of war against Europe and its values. Putin has yet to invade any member state of the European Union, but he will if he is not stopped in Ukraine.
EU member states are already feeling the effects of Russian aggression in several ways, including the armed energy supply and the floods of Ukrainian refugees who have entered the EU since the invasion began on February 24. Putin’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports now threatens to trigger a global food crisis and fuel a new wave of migration to the EU. “How many millions of refugees will there be in Europe if Russian policy causes famine in African and Asian countries?” President Zelensky warned recently.
These hostile acts are not new. In reality, Putin has been waging Hybrid War against Europe for years. Its agents and oligarchs operate in the shadow of European politics. They own luxury real estate, sports teams, newspapers and often enjoy official prestige. The Russian dictator has co-opted influential Western politicians and Russia has meddled in democratic processes ranging from presidential elections in the United States and France to Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum. Through disinformation and other forms of shenanigans, Moscow has succeeded in destabilizing and dividing societies in the Western world.
Now Putin is waging a vicious “hot war” that targets the whole of Europe, Zelenskyy said in a recent speech. “Ukrainian Towns Destroyed by Russian Army; millions of migrants; hundreds of thousands of people deported by the Russian army; and tens of thousands of Ukrainians killed. These are all blatant manifestations of Russia’s anti-European policy. By unleashing this war against Ukraine, Russia attempted to create a springboard for an attack on other nations in Europe. That is why our defense in this war and our future victory are of fundamental importance for the security of all in Europe.
Putin is the greatest threat to global security and must be stopped. Europe rose to the challenge by hosting Ukrainian refugees while providing humanitarian aid and supplying arms, but accepting Ukraine as an EU candidate is a game-changer. It represents a historic strengthening of Europe “and a complete dismantling of Russia’s ability to defeat us one by one”, according to Zelenskyy.
Candidate status will hamper Putin’s imperial ambitions and embolden Ukrainians as they fight for survival. Ultimately, the prospect of EU membership can transform Europe’s largest country, Ukraine, into a democracy with the rule of law and free enterprise.
Diane Francis is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, Managing Editor of the National Post in Canada, author of ten books, and author of a newsletter on America.
The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
The Eurasia Center mission is to strengthen transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and the Central Asia to the East.