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Ukraine isn’t ready for EU membership — the EU isn’t ready for it either

Andrew Duff is a former member of the European Parliament. His new book, “Constitutional Change in the European Union,” is to be published shortly by Palgrave.

The European Commission is busy drafting its formal opinion on Ukraine’s emergency bid to join the European Union.

While on the emotional level the bloc’s response to the application has been warm, when receiving the document, expected to land in June, the European Council must set compassion aside. When it comes to the future of enlargement, leaders must be clearheaded and self-critical, as the opinion must rehearse what the EU’s official accession procedures are, and why they are necessary.

The surprise application from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova is the right opportunity to finally drop the pretense that the EU will always admit new countries to membership when they claim to be ready — a fiction that has hampered positive developments in the Western Balkans for years and ended up with Turkey, a candidate since 1999, beyond the pale.

The main thrust of the Commission opinion will be on Ukraine’s ineligibility to be declared an accession country under present rules. Even before the Russian invasion, Ukraine was a very poor country, its GDP per capita below half that of Bulgaria. Since its 2014 association agreement with the EU progress has been slow, with the country’s integration into the single market stalling because it failed to meet EU norms of governance.

The fact is that Ukraine simply lacks the capacity to shoulder the burden of EU membership. And in its opinion, the Commission will have to warn that although Kyiv is right to apply for membership, in practice, its accession process will take at least a laborious decade to complete.

Another part of the enlargement puzzle is the EU’s own capacity to absorb newcomers. Nobody who knows how the Brussels institutions work — that is, without a strong government — can be confident that the EU is fit to internalize Ukraine’s national problem.

Just look at how the EU already struggles to cope with its existing members when they challenge the rule of law and reject the balance of rights and obligations implicit in the quasi-federal pact. And though the reelection of French President Emmanuel Macron means that EU treaty reform is once again on the agenda, that too will be a long and delicate process — not a quick fix for Ukraine.

Doubtless the promise of eventual EU membership would be valuable for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but the last thing he needs now is to get lost in the undergrowth of the acquis Communautaire, the accumulated legislation, legal acts and court decisions that constitute the body of EU law.

Emerging from the conflict with Russia, Ukraine will likely have to manage high voltage nationalism combined with great impatience for European integration.

Wishful thinking and attenuated false hope from Brussels are not a good foundation for Ukraine’s recovery. Instead, the EU would do better to offer Kyiv something that carries real political benefits that can be promptly delivered.

Along those lines, the introduction of a new category of affiliate membership would enlarge the instruments at the EU’s disposal, helping shoulder its increasing responsibilities in the wider European neighborhood.

Affiliate member countries should be expected to respect the values on which the EU is founded (Article 2), as well as its stance in international affairs (Article 21), and they would commit to developing a privileged partnership with the union (Article 8). They would not be obliged, however, to sign up to the goals of political, economic and monetary union.

For Ukraine, affiliate membership would be an upgrade on its current association agreement, involving stronger functional links between Kyiv and the EU’s executive, legislative and judicial institutions. It should also include participation in Council qualified majority votes on any single-market regulation applicable to its affiliate status.

Most importantly, on the back of a favorable and imaginative Commission opinion, an affiliation treaty could be offered to Ukraine swiftly. And the concept of affiliate membership would then be codified and installed in the EU treaties at the time of their next (imminent) revision.

For some affiliates, such as Ukraine, this partial membership would be seen as a staging post for full membership. For other third countries, notably the United Kingdom, affiliate status could potentially be a convenient and permanent parking place. And some current members, namely Hungary, could even take refuge, via Article 50, in relegation to affiliate membership — almost like a voie de détresse, an escape ramp on an Alpine pass.

Then there is the issue of security. We know that Ukraine will not join NATO, and an EU membership application does not guarantee military security. As such, EU affiliate membership would also have to be underpinned by an invitation to participate in a new European Security Council — an intergovernmental body at the pinnacle of the Western security architecture that emerges from the crisis.

This security council could bridge the historic divide between the two Brussels-based organizations of EU and NATO, helping the former to act militarily and the latter to think strategically — and its top priority would be to provide Ukraine with sure defense against any further Russian aggression.

We know that Ukraine’s full admission to the EU is not practicable, and membership won’t help solve its current predicament either. However, by acting swiftly this June, Europe’s leaders, backed by the United States, finally have an opportunity to strengthen the Union’s constitution, reboot NATO and restore Ukraine, all in one go.

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