I just got back from Europe (again) for another brief stint here in Washington before heading back to the Old Continent for a third time in as many weeks. (Don’t ask. Yes, I’m tired.)
This time around, I was mostly in Paris and Berlin, meeting with officials and civil society to discuss the prospects of EU enlargement in the Western Balkans after the Ukraine War. But as was perhaps inevitable, a lot of the meetings ended up focusing on Ukraine itself. My fleeting impression is that despite a lot of big talk about how the Ukraine War has changed everything for Europe, it’s possible that it has changed almost nothing at all.
The big question on everyone’s mind these days is whether the EU will end up fast-tracking Ukraine for accession to the club. If you recall, in the opening weeks of the war, with Russian forces bearing down on Kyiv and making gains in the south, the European Parliament voted for a motion encouraging European leaders to grant Ukraine candidate status. Though the headlines were mostly a variation on “European Parliament Backs Ukraine's EU Application,” the resolution equivocated in the best traditions of the august body. The relevant language, adopted on March 1, merely “called” for EU institutions to “work towards” granting candidate status to Ukraine “in line with Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union,” and in the meantime to “work towards its integration into the EU single market along the lines of the Association Agreement.”
Up until today, Ukraine has been part of something called the Eastern Partnership, an initiative launched in May 2009 by the EU as a means of offering benefits to six of the remaining post-Soviet states. Already in 2009, it was clear to most of the EU’s political leaders that enlargement was stalling out, and that their publics had no appetite to admit additional (voting) members to the club. Like the NATO summit in Bucharest the year before, which promised eventual membership to Ukraine and Georgia but made no promises as to when (“not now, but not never”), the Eastern Partnership similarly sought to encourage these “gray zone” countries without making any concrete commitments. The most advanced framework for cooperation envisaged by the Eastern Partnership program is called an Association Agreement—all sorts of mechanisms for integration with the European economy are laid out in it. Alert readers will remember that it was the threat of signing an Association Agreement that precipitated Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
Make no mistake, though: not only does the Eastern Partnership not promise anything, it takes concrete steps to fence off the actual accession process from these countries. As the acerbic political philosopher Luuk van Middelaar put it:
Knowing that these countries wanted to enter yet without promising to hold the door open, in its official declarations the Union repeated the Jesuitical formula “We recognize your European aspirations”. In other words: no harm in trying.
Van Middelaar zeroes in on a telling little detail in his account. Article 49 of the Treaty of the European Union says that any “European State” respecting European values is eligible to join. Van Middelaar, who worked for years inside the bureaucracy, points out that when preparing the Eastern Partnership, “the European Council recognized Ukraine as a ‘European country,’ still one step away from the coveted status of ‘European state’ that would mean it could formally lay claim to membership.” It was a subtle legal blockage making it very clear that these countries were essentially different. The European Parliament vote in March, in citing Article 49, was in effect timidly urging the EU’s political leaders to revise this blocking language—even while admitting that actual membership was not forthcoming and stating that the existing Association Agreement was how cooperation going forward should be structured.
Ten days after the vote in the European Parliament, the European Council met in Versailles. The language of its own declaration is also suffused with bureaucratese. But it amounted to a rebuke of the Parliament’s enthusiasm. (Bold is mine.)
The European Council acknowledged the European aspirations and the European choice of Ukraine, as stated in the Association Agreement. On 28 February 2022, exercising the right of Ukraine to choose its own destiny, the President of Ukraine submitted the application of Ukraine to become a member of the European Union. The Council has acted swiftly and invited the Commission to submit its opinion on this application in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Treaties. Pending this and without delay, we will further strengthen our bonds and deepen our partnership to support Ukraine in pursuing its European path. Ukraine belongs to our European family.
Legalese obfuscation at its finest. No mention of “European State.” Lots of talk about aspirations and chosen paths and a very clear reference to the dead-end Association Agreement. In other words, no harm trying, Ukraine. Keep at it. One day. Maybe.
During my first day of meetings in Paris, Emmanuel Macron gave a speech in Strasbourg in which he briefly laid out a new vision for a “European Political Community.” (Bold, again, is mine.)
This new European organization would allow democratic European nations that subscribe to our shared core values to find a new space for political and security cooperation, cooperation in the energy sector, in transport, investments, infrastructures, the free movement of persons and in particular of our youth. Joining it would not prejudge future accession to the European Union necessarily, and it would not be closed to those who have left the EU.
There was little doubt in Paris that Macron specifically wanted to create a kind of secondary membership sphere for countries close to, but not in, the EU. And when I got to Germany a few days later, it was abundantly clear that Macron’s proposal was warmly received. There were some concerns in Berlin that Macron is planning to put the countries of the Western Balkans in the same category as Ukraine. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz publicly said he is personally opposed to that. But as a means of handling Ukraine—perfect.
Plus ça change. Europe’s gonna Europe. So what? Many tell me that Ukraine’s leadership is ready for disappointment. But judging from their public statements, and the statements of many activists in Ukraine, the country as a whole could be in for quite a shock once the shooting stops. Add to this rumors about how fraught behind-the-scenes negotiations about “security guarantees” have been—Tom Friedman recently reported that Biden wants to avoid letting “Ukraine turn itself into an American protectorate on the border of Russia”—and you’ve got a hell of a cocktail brewing. Shadi has defended hypocrisy in these pages before. But maybe there are limits?