Admitting Ukraine would advance France’s dream of a more assertive EU

The joint visit to Kyiv by the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Romania was a watershed. Before, it was an open question whether Ukraine would achieve EU candidacy status. Now this is the likely outcome, reinforced by the European Commission’s recommendation in favour of candidacy the following day.

For the three western Europeans, who have at times been at odds with their Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy for seeming too even-handed in their response to the war, the voyage was redemption of sorts. French president Emmanuel Macron, in particular, would have been foolish to come if it was only to continue equivocating on the candidate status Zelenskyy is urging the EU to grant.

But bigger than any diplomatic mis-step would be the deeper geopolitical error of withholding candidacy status at all.

In the months since Ukraine lodged its membership application, days into the war, a range of misgivings has been voiced. Candidacy status is just symbolic. The road to actual membership is long and tortuous. The EU would be dysfunctional with more members so its governance has to be reformed before admitting new ones.

The argument that the EU is unlikely to let Ukraine become a member in the end, so it would be cruel and unwise to grant false hopes, is the most cynical objection to candidacy. But all of these are so many red herrings.

Both the admission process and EU decision-making procedures must indeed be made more efficient — but this is no reason not to grant candidacy. If anything, launching accession talks with Ukraine is the best prompt for the EU to put its mind to fixing these problems. And if candidacy status really is just symbolic, granting it is costless and withholding it would just expose EU pusillanimity.

At the heart of the debate over Ukraine’s candidacy is a difference in attitudes. In a turbulent world, should the EU’s goal be to insulate Europeans from problems on their borders or further afield? Or is it to use what powers the bloc has in order to transform those problems into something more favourable?

This tension between insularity and engagement, or between adapting to or influencing a changing world order, comes to a head with the question of what to do about Ukraine.

Key to it is France’s position. Macron has consistently pushed for a more active EU to shape the world around it. But he stands in the French tradition of presupposing that external power comes from more internal coherence. The French political establishment has tended to push for deepening EU co-operation rather than expanding it to more countries. It has always seen the latter as an obstacle to amplifying its own influence as a middle-sized power by projecting it through the EU.

Hence an insistence — most recently in Macron’s speech in Strasbourg last month — on overcoming veto power to make faster decisions. Macron also called for a wider “European political community” for those not yet ready for EU membership or who never will be. In the case of Ukraine as well as the western Balkans, French officials are quick to suggest that an EU with even more members than today would be unwieldy to the point of paralysis.

But Putin’s war against Ukraine makes this perspective untenable. Not because the risk of unwieldiness isn’t real. But because if the aim is to attract other countries to adopt Europe’s way of life and to limit the power of those who would undermine it, nothing advances that goal more than irreversibly tying Ukraine into the European system of rules. There has never been a better opportunity for that, nor will there ever be one.

The commission notes that Ukraine has already adopted swaths of EU rules. Brussels’ extensive queries on the application have been answered in record time, even under the pressure of war. Ukraine’s pro-western civil society wants to use candidacy status to pressure politicians for more reforms.

In other words, this is a case where a real push for enlargement would enhance rather than threaten the French aim of a more assertive EU. The tension between means and ends in French thinking is still there, but Macron’s visit to Kyiv may at least be an acknowledgment of it. Along with the demands for further reforms included in the commission’s verdict, it could give other sceptical member states cover to come to the same recognition. If that turns out to be the case, it would be a fine conclusion to the last summit of France’s EU presidency.

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