Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 29 August 2023. © Richard Kemp
‘Enlargement [of the European Union] is no longer a dream,’ said Charles Michel, president of the European Council, in Slovenia this week. ‘It is time to move forward.’ It is rare I find myself agreeing with a Brussels bureaucrat, but on this he is absolutely right: the EU should be bold and accept new members by 2030. And Ukraine should be chief among them.
Yet, as Mr Michel must know, it is a false hope. The chances of the EU admitting a country the size of Ukraine or any of the other candidates further east, such as Moldova, is a fantasy, and for two reasons: the consequences for France and Germany’s power within the bloc, and the sheer financial cost for an organisation not known for its open-hearted charity.
Let’s consider the economic impact first. Were it to join, Ukraine would be the poorest member of the EU by some margin, with a per capita income half of that of Bulgaria. Taking into account the economic damage sustained from Putin’s war and the astronomic costs of post-war reconstruction, Ukraine would suck in eye-watering quantities of the EU’s development aid spending, already around one quarter of the total budget.
Then there is the EU’s largest budgetary item: agricultural subsidies. With 55 per cent of its land used for arable farming, Ukraine has one of the largest agricultural sectors in Europe and its farmers would be entitled to a huge slice of Common Agricultural Policy cash – all presumably at the expense of France, which receives the largest share of all member states.
Ukrainian membership would also very likely deprive funds from other poorer members: Romania, Hungary, Greece and Poland chief among them. Some current net beneficiaries like Czechia and Portugal would likely become net contributors overnight. To reduce some of the impact, the richest countries, such as France and Germany, would have no choice other than to dramatically step up their budget contributions – a daunting prospect at a time of such great economic turmoil and with anti-EU movements growing among some electorates.
More fatal than that, however, is that the admission of Ukraine would also shift the traditional balance of power in the EU, which Germany and France have effectively ruled since the beginning. Ukraine would become the fifth largest member of the EU by population, giving it immense power in the qualified majority system within the bloc, which takes account both of the number of states voting and their population size.
There is already friction within the EU between Western and Eastern members, not least over social issues, on which the former Soviet countries are more culturally conservative and resistant to growing Western liberalism. The addition of another numerically powerful Eastern European member, which Western leaders fear could gang up with Poland and other countries against the status quo, would add to concerns in Berlin, Paris and Brussels.
The reality is that none of these fundamental tensions stands a chance of being resolved without serious reform of the EU’s budget and decision-making processes, including removal of national vetoes over key issues such as security, foreign policy and social reform. Treaty changes are always notoriously hard to accomplish within the EU. With some existing members standing to lose so much both in terms of economic benefits and national sovereignty, the far-reaching changes necessary to admit Ukraine would certainly take many years and perhaps ultimately prove unachievable.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, and Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, have both made it clear that Ukraine’s accession could take decades. All of the leaders that granted candidate status to Kyiv last June likely think the same, recognising that this would be an issue for their successors and not for them.
But there is probably another, equally selfish, reason why the EU has been holding out the false hope of membership. It may be a carrot to lure Ukraine into ceding territory to Russia, along the same lines as suggested by the Nato Secretary General’s chief of staff, who recently said membership of the alliance could be granted in exchange for a peace deal with Putin.
This ridiculous thinking shows how desperate some within Nato and the EU are to see an end to this conflict, even if it means handing victory to Moscow. The idea that Ukraine can be bought off by an offer of EU membership, which Kyiv will privately recognise is unlikely to materialise for many years, if at all, is delusional.
In any case, whatever he says to the contrary, Putin is not going to countenance Ukraine as an EU member, any more than as a member of Nato, even if he holds on to a chunk of its eastern territory. His greatest fear is not a defensive military alliance but democracy and prosperity, which his totalitarian regime cannot offer to the Russian people, especially on his own doorstep. His acceptance of such terms would be about as reliable as his undertakings of safe passage to Prigozhin.
The greatest service the EU can do for the people of Ukraine is not to hold out the vain hope of membership at some undefined point in the future, but to make it clear to Putin that it will stand with Ukraine until he is driven out of the country, and provide the finance and weaponry Kyiv needs to finish the job. So far Europe has fallen well short.
Image: President Zelensky with European Parliament President Roberta Metsola. Source: Wikimedia Commons