The fair EU Candidacy or the hypocritical pride of the EU?
This article is the first in our collaboration with the Blue & Yellow, the blog of the European Career's Association. We will publish a few different pieces through various media on the upcoming European Parliament Elections happening from 6 to 9 of June 2024. So keep a look out for this and don't forget to go vote!
As this is a collaboration, two writers, one of each journal, have written this piece together.
Only 6 months before the European Legislative elections, new challenges and questions are to be added to the complexity of what the European ballot engages. The report on the rise of populism in Europe as well as the War in Ukraine emphasizes the difficulty of new adhesions of countries to the European Union. On the 8th of November 2023, the European Commission announced and admitted the updated new candidacies of Ukraine, Moldova, Bosnia, and Georgia.
To integrate the EU, a state has to make concessions and collaborate with the organization. It is considered to be a long, complex, and very bureaucratic process, in which the candidates have to agree and comply with the standards and requirements the EU demands.
Turkey is the clearest illustration of the necessity for EU compliance and how this process may take a long time or never be completed. When the country first asked for EU adhesion, the European Union did not exist yet. Indeed, Turkey asked for accession back in 1987 to the ancestor of the EU, the European Economic Community, which was more than 30 years ago. The nation is now far from joining the organization for a variety of reasons which include geopolitical issues and serious violations of Human Rights standards.
However, entry to the EU tends to become more difficult as it ages. For Croatia, the latest member to join, the process lasted almost a decade. Making the process of adhesion more and more difficult marks an increased tendency for the European Union to accept fewer members in an institution that tends to be criticized for being ‘overcrowded already’. Still, in a 27 members-state organization, there is always hope and chance for bordering countries to try and join the European Union.
With the trigger of the war in Ukraine in January 2022, several countries in Eastern Europe as well as the EU, saw the urge to welcome those countries for further protection against Russia’s threat of influence. This process is further emphasized in Ukraine’s case. Indeed, its citizens and President Zelensky have expressed the wish to be welcomed in the EU, which would assist and protect them even more from this war.
The race toward accession to the European Union for Ukraine, Moldova, Bosnia, and Georgia has been further emphasized and even accelerated due to the current geopolitical concerns happening at the door of the EU. It took almost four months for Ukraine’s and Moldova’s applications to be approved, 11 times faster than the average EU member.
In a historical move on November 8, 2023, Georgia achieved the coveted candidate status for joining the European Union, marking a significant step in its quest for closer ties with the Western bloc. However, this triumph is shadowed by a myriad of challenges, reflecting the complex dynamics of Georgia's relationship with Russia, internal political struggles, and the imperative need for democratic reforms.
The EU's decision to grant Georgia candidate status comes 18 months after the initial request, which President Salome Zourabichvili underscores as a response to Russia's occupation. This strategic positioning is essential for Georgia, dependent on trade routes linking the Caucasus to Russia, despite deep-seated anti-Russian sentiments. The Georgian military road, historically used by invaders, is both an economic lifeline and a political symbol, presenting a delicate balance for the nation.
The Georgian military road, connecting Tbilisi to the Russian border, symbolizes the intricate relationship between the two nations. Despite being the second-largest business partner of Georgia, Russia's actions, including the war and an embargo, have led to a rise in tensions. Many Georgians view their proximity to Russia with mixed emotions, with echoes of the situation in Ukraine heightening concerns. The current government's policies at the borders, inconsistent with EU sanctions, raise questions about its alignment with European values.
President Zourabichvili's efforts to steer Georgia toward EU membership face internal challenges. The ruling Georgia Dream Party, once seen as pro-European, is now perceived as less committed to Western values. Recent events, such as the president narrowly escaping impeachment for seeking European support without parliamentary consent, underscore the internal political struggle. While 8 out of 10 Georgians aspire to join the EU, political leaders' divergence from this sentiment raises concerns about the nation's true direction.
Georgia's history, marked by a Russian invasion 15 years ago that still sees 20% of its territory occupied, emphasizes the urgency of aligning with the EU for protection. The Georgian Dream Party's reluctance to impose sanctions against Russia and its accusations against NATO create a divide within the nation. To make matters worse, the ongoing presence of Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia aligns with the situation in Ukraine, highlighting the need for European support.
Ursula Van Der Leyen's announcement recommending EU accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, as well as the candidate status for Georgia, outlines the criteria Georgia must fulfill. The 12 criteria, including progress in relations with the EU, combating propaganda, and aligning with common foreign security policy, demonstrate the multifaceted challenges. Administrative capacity, political inconsistencies, and geopolitical shifts necessitate significant reforms. Georgia's alignment with the EU's Foreign and Security policy emerges as a pivotal factor in the accession framework.
Georgia's journey toward EU accession is marked by a delicate dance between historical ties with Russia, internal political dynamics, and the strict criteria set by the EU. As the decision on signing from other EU members looms in December, Georgia faces a critical juncture. The nation must navigate through its economic dependencies, historical grievances, and internal political conflicts to secure its place within the European Union, balancing the aspirations of its people with the realities of regional geopolitics. The path to EU accession for Georgia is crowded with challenges, but it also presents an opportunity for the nation to redefine its identity on the international stage.
The recent recommendation enabling the initiation of accession talks is a symbolic milestone for Ukraine’s journey into Europe as groundwork for such talks has been laid long before the decision. Ever since gaining its independence in 1991, Ukraine has eyed potential EU membership and had a clear European vision embedded in the country's foreign policy. The desire to become an EU member has been voiced as early as 2005 when the European Parliament passed a motion to cement closer ties with Ukraine and consider future membership opportunities. Ukraine has managed to brand itself as a promising democratic state, despite being destabilized by the aftermath of the Orange Revolution. In some ways, protests of the Orange Revolution, caused by a corrupt presidential election held in 2004, showcased advancements within the Ukrainian civil society.
Further convergence of Ukraine and the EU has caused a stir in the political arena of the region. But it wasn’t until the drafting of the EU - Ukraine Association Agreement in 2012, that the biggest regional power, Russia, started to feel threatened by the situation. The series of riots, known later as Euromaidan, began in November 2013 after the government failed to sign the agreement, hence stalling progress on European integration. The protests resulted in a complete reshuffle of the political balance in Ukraine and enabled the formation of a pro-European government, which finally signed the Association Agreement in 2014. The document has deepened the relationship between the parties in many fields - most notably, economics and trade, with the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area Agreement playing an important role. The latter agreement has helped to integrate trade-related legislative norms between EU and Ukraine, while simultaneously removing most of the good tariffs. As of now, more than 90% of good tariffs are lifted between the parties, and new categories are being considered annually.
The progress towards EU membership was visible throughout the past decade, as was the support for it in Ukrainian society. The numbers paint a very clear picture - public support for EU integration has increased from 38% in January 2014 to a whopping 92% in January 2023 (National Democratic Institute, 2023). Despite these favorable developments in recent years, undeniable factors are hindering possible EU membership and further accession. While it might come off as quite obvious, it is important to remember that any accession talks are impossible amidst war and the future of the conflict is unpredictable. However, structural flaws within Ukraine go beyond any armed conflict. As of now, there are 3 conditions for successful accession talks that are still not met by Ukraine - namely, anti-corruption, de-oligarchization, and national minorities conditions. Corruption in the country has consistently appeared as the argument against accepting Ukraine as a new potential member. Former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, a very vocal critic of the Ukrainian accession, pointed out the consistent presence of corruption amongst political elites. On an institutional level, the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Committee and the High Anti-Corruption Court in 2011 and 2019, respectively, has shown commitment for the fight, but little effect on the issue itself. Furthermore, the presence of oligarchy goes hand in hand with the already existing corruption. A significant number of oligarchs are major political stakeholders and have control over media outlets, making matters worse.
The future of the Ukrainian accession is heavily dependent on the results of the ongoing war and the government’s political competency. It most certainly will require the government to put drastic measures in place as the past efforts to fight corruption in the country were deemed ineffective.
Another country affected by the recent decision is Moldova. For Moldova, an Eastern European state hoping for a future membership, this has been a bumpy road. The association agreement signed in 2014 has been a massive push towards reforms, yet progress is still lacking in a few areas.
Similarly to other states, Moldova has been issued several conditions that need to be met to proceed with the accession talks. Moldova's journey toward EU accession hinges on a comprehensive transformation across various fronts. Enhancing economic efficiency stands as a cornerstone, requiring structural reforms to streamline sectors, promote innovation, and diversify industries. Reducing corruption is paramount, necessitating robust legal frameworks, transparency measures, and anti-corruption agencies to foster trust and attract investments. A 2015 bank fraud scandal and subsequent protests in Chișinău have signified public’s disappointment with the current progress on the matter. While many reforms initiated by the current president Sandu are deemed effective in theory, the lack of necessary infrastructure prevents them from successful implementation.
Moldova's aspirations to join the European Union signify a pivotal step toward fostering economic stability, democratic governance, and regional cooperation. To strengthen their bid for EU membership, Moldova should prioritize key reforms in several domains. Enhancing the rule of law, tackling corruption, and bolstering institutional capacities are imperative to align with EU standards. Economic restructuring and investment in sectors like agriculture, technology, and renewable energy can fortify the nation's economic foundation. Moreover, fostering stronger ties with neighboring countries and promoting regional stability could enhance Moldova's geopolitical standing. Collaborating closely with EU member states, leveraging trade agreements, and participating actively in EU initiatives and programs can demonstrate commitment and readiness for integration.
Seven months before the Legislative elections, the question remains the same. Are European citizens ready to welcome and accept further adhesion to the European Union? Unfortunately, the very idea of the EU for many is not relevant anymore, and the rise of populism undermines the institution as a whole. However, this idea does not alter the fact of having a war at the doors of Europe and how difficult and painful it must be confronted with every day. This is the time for cooperation, support, and humanity. What is the European Union for if it is not to assist these values it promotes, and welcome countries when they need our help? These adhesions will bring new questions to the table in the coming years and confront the extent to which the role of the EU can and should expand.