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Why Ukraine's rapid EU membership is an illusion, and what dangers it poses

The illusion that Ukraine could quickly become a member of the European Union has been sold quite a bit in recent months. International sympathy for the country, in solidarity with the fact that it was invaded by neighboring Russia, contributed to the spread of this illusion, which was taken as a feasible promise. In recent weeks, some European politicians have been criticized for bringing a healthy dose of reality to the issue. Such criticism is blatantly unfair in any honest debate about Ukraine’s membership in the EU.

On the day 10 in May, French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking before the European Parliament, stated that “we know perfectly well that the process to allow Ukraine to join would take several years, possibly decades. That’s the truth, unless we decide to lower the membership standards. And rethink the unity of our Europe”. His speech was in a context of proposing a “parallel European community”, only political, to bring together neighboring countries and connect them to the most powerful EU, even giving possible security guarantees.

On the day 10 of May, it was the turn of the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, to state that “there is no shortcut on the path to EU membership” and that the existence of a “finish line” is an “imperative of equity for all Balkan countries that have long wanted to join the European bloc”. He made those comments two days after speaking by phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Scholz’s speech possibly dialogues directly with Zelensky’s previous comments.

Accession process

Ukraine already had trade and cooperation agreements with the EU since 2014, part of precisely the events that lead to what Ukrainian nationalists call the Revolution of Dignity, or Euromaidan, which overthrew pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and Russia itself, will classify what happened as a coup d’état articulated by Western countries to weaken Russia. In that context, Crimea is annexed by Russia and the conflict in the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, begins.

The Zelensky government officialized the application process for EU membership on the day 28 of February this year, four days after the Russian invasion. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared her support for Ukraine’s accession to the bloc and, on March 1, the European Parliament recommended that Ukraine be considered an official candidate for the accession process. Ursula von der Leyen, when visiting Ukraine in early April, stated that she supported a “fast track” of accession for Ukrainians, say.

The Ukrainian application is already in its second phase. Considering the emergency of the current situation, the Ukrainian president requested an “immediate admission” under a “new special procedure”, which has received support from eight EU states. This is probably what Scholz called a “shortcut” to criticism from Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. He stated that “the ambiguity practiced by some EU countries regarding Ukraine’s European perspective must end” and that “we do not need comments that demonstrate second-class treatment of Ukraine and hurt the feelings of Ukrainians”.

The point is that, as I said, this wave of support and solidarity with Ukrainians, although very beautiful and encouraging at a tragic moment, sells an illusion. It’s not doable. Even when it is said that the Ukrainian “shortcut” is supported by eight states, which are they? Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Czechia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. None of them are from the big European economies, the ones that “pay the bill” for the EU. On the contrary, when looking at the comments of the leaders of Germany and France, the two largest economies in the EU.

Problems of accession

Are There are three types of problems for Ukraine’s entry into the EU, which make this process, in Macron’s words, something that depends on decades, not weeks or years. With a very important detail, which is the fact that these problems existed even before the war or before the crisis of 2014. Today all this is exacerbated by conflict, Russian objections and territorial issues, especially the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014.

The first problem is the geographical and demographic aspect. Ukraine is the largest country located exclusively in Europe. With 45 thousand square kilometers, the country is twice the size of Italy. With a population of 45 million people, it would be the fifth most populous country in the EU. All this represents a logistical nightmare for the developed countries of the EU, with more borders, greater flow of people and eventual mass immigration to the great centers.

As an example, the accession of Romania and Bulgaria , in 2007, there are still steps to be completed, such as the entry of these two countries into the free-traffic Schengen Area. And these two states do not represent even close to the challenges that would be a Ukrainian accession. The two Balkan countries are also great examples of the other problems for Ukraine’s entry into the EU. In fact, these same problems, in the context of the accession of these countries, were part of the reasons for the serious crisis in the Eurozone, in 2008.

One of them is the discrepancy economic. Ukraine has a GDP per capita of 14 thousand dollars, while the EU average is 2017 thousand dollars per capita, more than double. Even Bulgaria, the lowest index in the bloc, has a GDP per capita of 24 thousand dollars. In other words, it is a much poorer country, with a population that is also poorer, which would create a serious internal discrepancy. For this there is the balancing mechanism, which transfers resources to the poorest countries in the EU, such as Hungary.

The Ukrainian Human Development Index is 0,779, slightly above Brazil and slightly below Iran. The EU average is 0,897, a huge distance. The floor again is Bulgarian, of 0,816, still considerably above the Ukrainian HDI. Inserting such a large country and with such a socio-economic discrepancy would pose a huge challenge to European finances, while the mere Ukrainian population would give the country considerable weight in the European Parliament, generating an imbalance between economic power and political representation.

Smaller countries

Finally, the third problem is that, regardless of feelings towards the country victim of an invasion, Ukraine does not comply with the majority of the European criteria on governance, corruption, democracy, transparency of the public machine and the fight against organized crime. Again, even much smaller member countries like Bulgaria and Romania pose challenges in these areas. And all these problems are independent of the war, preceding the invasion and being part of the debate on Ukrainian participation in the EU since the beginning of the century.

When Scholz points out the need to “respect the line” of countries candidate Balkans, he is also motivated by the fact that they are much smaller countries, which will represent a much easier adaptation in their accession process. Also countries whose eventual adaptation costs will be much lower. The likely next EU member is small Montenegro, which became a member of NATO in 2017. Montenegro has a higher HDI than Bulgaria and a population of only 600 thousand people, in an area that is just over half of Sergipe, the smallest Brazilian state.

The problem with this selling of illusions is that, in the end, the EU will only get disillusioned people. Millions of Ukrainians will feel cheated, their own internal cohesion will be threatened, between the “pro-Ukraine” and the realists, and the image of the EU will suffer internationally. Solidarity is important, but it can’t just be lip service. Probably the actors that will reap the rewards of this will be the USA and China, possible economic partners in a necessary reconstruction of the country. And they didn’t promise what they won’t be able to deliver soon.

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