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  • Will Kingston-Cox

Why EU candidate status is dangerously symbolic for Ukraine and Moldova


Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, agreed on the granting of the latter's candidate status for the bloc

On 23 June, the European Union unanimously accepted Ukraine and Moldova as membership candidates to join the political bloc. Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, hailed it as a “good day for Europe”, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy citing the move as “one of the most important decisions” in Ukraine’s political history. On the surface, this appears to be the right step in bolstering the security of Kyiv and Chisinau in the face of Russian belligerency. Yet the consequences of such a move have the propensity to be wholly negative in the short-term.

The accession process to the EU is long-winded and riddled with caveats, like the overarching condition that candidates must not be at war. It is unlikely the move will provide any immediate security benefits to Ukraine or Moldova, whilst dangerously intensifying Russian anger towards the ‘Europeanisation’ of its perceived sphere of influence: a metaphorical poking of the ‘Russian bear’. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and attacks in the separatist Transnistrian region of Moldova has evidenced his resolve to act on his frustrations at the geopolitical trajectory of the two countries. Fresh missile strikes on Kyiv on 26 June reasserts the view that Putin’s anger materialises militarily with devastating effects. Whilst the motivations behind granting candidacy status are understandable, their consequences may render it a dangerously symbolic act.

Notwithstanding, the importance of EU membership to Ukraine and Moldova is indisputable. Membership would ensure automatic military assistance in the situation of being attacked and would also bring two of Europe's poorest nations inside a multi-trillion dollar political-economic union. Ironically, it is these very benefits that provide major sticking points in both Kyiv and Chisinau's candidacies which threaten to delay accession indefinitely. Candidacy status to join the EU is both provisional and conditional. Eligibility to join the EU, known as the ‘Copenhagen criteria’, requires aspirational member states to adhere to certain political and economic conditions. Politically, candidates must possess “stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for and protection of minorities”. Economically, candidates must enjoy a “functioning market economy and the capacity to cope forces in the EU”. On both these fronts, problems emerge for the two membership bids.

Whilst ravaged by war, Ukraine is naturally incapable of maintaining stable political institutions, as the guarantee of democracy is rendered unfeasible with Russian collaborationists and occupiers establishing authoritarian pseudo-regimes within their territory. The rule of law has all but been replaced by martial law, whilst the human rights situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate. The issue of ‘respect for and protection of minorities’ is particularly troublesome with the war-torn Donbas region largely populated by the ethnic Russian minority.

Meanwhile, both Moldova and Ukraine, as two of Europe’s poorest nations, will struggle to meet the ‘functioning market economy’ criteria. This is especially the case as the Russian invasion of Ukraine imposes inflationary and recessionary forces upon their respective economies, as well as Europe as a whole. A significant amount of work is required to bring both Kyiv and Chisinau in line with the Copenhagen requirements; it is widely feared such an amount of work will take several years without the added hindrance of being at war.

Time is of the essence for Ukraine and Moldova as their security and sovereignty continues to be threatened and attacked. It is advisable not to place too much significance on the EU’s latest move. EU candidacy status, as shown by Turkey, can mean little more than nothing. In 1999, Turkey was granted candidate status but has repeatedly stalled over the Copenhagen criteria. It is wholly reasonable to suggest this will be the case for Ukraine and Moldova. As such, the acceptance of Ukraine and Moldova as candidates to join the EU provides a mere morale boost, with any material benefits a long way from being enjoyed. At the same time, such a move consolidates Russian fears that their sphere of influence in Eastern Europe is increasingly ‘Europeanising’, stoking Russian concerns which too often translate to military aggression.

The news of candidate status has irrefutably incensed the Kremlin. Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, described the move as an “encroachment” on Russia’s perceived ‘sphere of influence’: that is, the former Soviet states which comprise the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). She protested that the decision to grant Ukraine and Moldova candidate status was confirmation of the EU’s determination to “exploit the CIS on a geopolitical level” and to “’contain’ Russia”. Putin’s personal spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, warned Ukraine and Moldova of the consequences of such a move towards the European Union, with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, accusing the EU of launching a “war coalition against Russia”. Such incensement has not been limited to just rhetoric, with renewed strikes on civilian targets evidencing the dangers of provoking Russia.

The EU’s acceptance of Ukraine and Moldova as candidates is a natural move in attempting to strengthen their security and sovereignty. Unfortunately, such a progression is arbitrary and dangerously so. No security benefits will materialise imminently, with many political and economic hurdles lying ahead before they obtain eligibility status. What the move has done, however, is poke the bear; reaffirming Russian anxieties over the Europeanisation of its ‘sphere of influence’, and intensifying the Kremlin’s resolve to avert such a process through the only means it knows how: indiscriminate military aggression.

Image: Flickr / Guerre Ukraine Russie Telegram Francais



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