In any case, Ukraine will most likely not join the EU any time soon.
Plagued by deep structural problems, not to mention the Russian invasion, the country could take many years to be ready, regardless of where its heart lies.
Yet Ukraine’s accession is a hot topic, with heated debates among analysts and policymakers over what the embattled nation’s entry into the fold would mean in practice.
‘The center of gravity will move to the east’
With some 40 million inhabitants, Ukraine would become the fifth largest member of the Union and the largest in area if it joined it.
According to the teacher Michael Keatingfrom the University of Aberdeen (Scotland), this would have major geopolitical implications and pave the way for a new Warsaw-kyiv axis that could rival the traditional Paris-Berlin one.
Since the “old Franco-German engine is no longer what it was… we could certainly see a big shift in the balance of power within the EU,” he told Euronews, even though Ukraine itself would not be “very powerful “.
Enlargement could further jeopardize the unity and cohesion of the club of 27 member states.
“The more the European Union grows, the more difficult it becomes to make decisions and take collective action,” Keating said.
Within the EU there are already major disputes between western and southern, eastern and northern states, over the nature of the bloc and its objectives.
Relatively new members Hungary and Poland, who joined in 2004, have been a thorn in the side of Brussels, which has sanctioned them for undermining the rule of law and democracy.
Money matters too.
Even before the war wrecked its economy, Ukraine was one of the poorest countries in Europe.
In 2021 it had a GDP per capita of 4,800 dollars (4,451 euros), more than ten times less than advanced European economies such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany.
According to Jolyon Howortha professor of European Politics, integrating such a battered and bruised country would cost a “horrific amount.”
In addition, it could strain the EU’s finances and divert funds from the poorest member states, such as Poland, Greece, Hungary and Romania, all of them net receivers of funds in 2022.
But this has happened before.
Despite “small complaints” from losers, Keating says EU funding has historically shifted, shifting east and south when the EU enlarged in 2004 and 2007.
“It’s part of the normal adjustment process,” he told Euronews. “They’re losing funding because they’re developing. It’s not a big problem.”
“It’s kind of hard to complain about getting richer.”
The rhetoric of the ‘Polish plumber’
In the long term, Ukraine could reap economic benefitsespecially by attracting foreign investment, if it is admitted to the EU, the richest trading bloc on the planet.
In addition, the need to meet EU eligibility criteria could incentivize the country to address deep-seated structural problems, such as corruption, an endemic evil in Ukraine.
But Keating issues a warning.
In many states, accession to the EU has increased regional inequalities.
The inhabitants of the surroundings of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, for example, have a GDP per capita almost three times higher to that of the poorest region of the country.
This is possible in the Ukraine, according to Keating. With investment concentrated around kyiv, the eastern regions – where “political tensions are greatest” – could be further “economically marginalized”.
“That could be a problem,” he said. “Policies would need to be put in place to ensure that there is not too much division in the country when it comes to the economy and wealth.”
In the more immediate term, Howorth says that it is “almost inevitable” that there will be migration flows out of Ukraine.
Any massive influx of Ukrainian workers risks creating a possible political backlash in the current Member States, regardless of their economic contribution.
The UK, booming at the time, was one of the only major economies not to limit the number of workers from Eastern Europe, and immigration later became a hugely contentious issue within the Brexit vote.
And this despite positive economic impact of European immigrants in the country.
But Keating said: “That has already happened. Poland was full of Ukrainians, even before the war.”
“Labor markets in Western countries need these workers,” he continued, while acknowledging that “economics and politics are not always aligned.”
What are the limits of Europe?
In the British political magazine New Statesmanessayist Jeremy Cliffe claimed that leaving Ukraine out in the open would be dangerous, possibly inviting further conflict.
“Imagine a Ukraine structurally and industrially worn down by years of war; its stagnant economy and scant investment; a slow-motion failing state; its voters and leaders resentful of an EU that failed to deliver on its promises.”
” Compared with this scenario, the challenges of the rapid enlargement of the EU are not so unrealizable,” he added.
The Russian invasion has boosted Ukrainian support for EU membership.
According to a survey by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, 92% want to join the club in 2030. Before the conflict, only 67% said they would vote yes in a membership referendum.
The debates surrounding Ukraine’s accession to the EU ultimately raise deep existential questions about the bloc itself.
“Enlargements constantly call into question why we’re doing it,” Howorth said. “What is the purpose of further expansion? Are we just doing it? Can it continue to expand more or less indefinitely?”
“If you adopt that logic that the European Union can continue to expand, more and more, then things quickly get out of hand.”
He again took aim at “unresolved divisions” among member states over what the Union really is, saying it is traveling into the unknown, with no clear purpose.
“We’ve never defined our destination. We’ve just said that’s where we’re headed. And I think with Ukraine’s possible accession, we need to have a much clearer answer to that question: What’s the point of all this?”
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