The race for EU membership status: the three scenarios for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Analysis of Dionis Cenușa



In the context of Russian aggression, the key factor in advancing the prospect of EU membership within the Eastern Partnership remains the Ukrainian dossier. It is virtually inevitable that Ukraine's rejection sets a negative precedent for Moldova and Georgia, whose European path currently depends as much on the quality of internal reforms as on the performance of Ukrainian diplomacy and on the opening of European capitals for enlargement to the East...


Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor

The outbreak of the Russian war against Ukraine at the end of February naturally increased the interest of Eastern European states with a pro-European agenda for a qualitative update of the relationship with the European Union (EU). Practically, throughout the Russian aggression (still continuous), Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have channeled their diplomatic efforts towards the objective of obtaining the status of candidates for accession to the EU. The application and completion of the questionnaires, which took place in March-May, is now followed by the announcement of the EU verdict. The European Commission will comment on the application for membership submitted by Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in the coming days (June 17). Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stressed that the decision on Ukraine's candidacy will influence the "future of Europe" (Interfax, June 2022). Obviously, there is no explicit causal link between the sustainability of the EU project and the prospect of accession (for the moment, not guaranteed) of Ukraine. However, the situation in this country becomes an unavoidable responsibility of the EU, if it wants to (re)acquire a sense of regional security on its eastern flank. For this reason, the offer of EU candidate status for Ukraine has a meaning that goes far beyond geopolitical symbolism, based on the collective Western resistance against Russian militarist revisionism. Therefore, the candidate status has an urgent practical utility that, in addition to stabilizing European security, also includes the strategic objective of post-war reconstruction in the immediate vicinity of the EU.

Member States' positions on Ukraine's candidature differ. While Poland, Lithuania and other Baltic states, as well as Ireland and Italy, support Kyiv's move, Denmark and the Netherlands would have the biggest reservations. They believe that the institutional and legislative parameters in Ukraine need to be improved before granting candidate status (Bloomberg, June 2022). Indirectly, Danish-Dutch objections would also automatically affect the attitude towards Moldova and Georgia. For political and strategic reasons, the other two Eastern European countries implementing the association agreements cannot be favored to the detriment of Ukraine, which is a priority in most European capitals and in Brussels. At the same time, Ukraine's success will have a positive domino effect on others. At the same time, the non-approval of Ukraine's candidacy could block the path of Georgia and Moldova.

The race for the candidacy takes place separately in the three associated countries. Ukraine uses a combination of moral and technical arguments. On the one hand, the EU is called upon to support the Ukrainian cause, where the idea prevails that the Ukrainian state defends itself against Russia both for reasons of national defense and for European ideals. On the other hand, the Ukrainian side recalls that some progress has been made in the area of ​​reforms, in particular in the fight against corruption and justice, even in times of war. Moldova is next in line, actively promoting the pro-candidacy approach. The dominant arguments are related to the historical-linguistic proximity, through the Romanian identity affiliation, and the reformist intentions of the government. Unlike the reforms in Ukraine, the Moldovan ones have a lower probative value, because the new generation of structural reforms related to the fight against corruption, the modernization of institutional capacities or the judiciary have started very recently. In the case of Georgia, the authorities are trapped in a negative external image, the result of mistrust of the ruling party and the mishandling of scandals related to the power-opposition relationship, the influence of the oligarchs (Bidzina Ivanishvili), the persecution opposition media, repeated breach of human rights. Although the perception of endemic corruption in Georgia is lower than in the Western Balkans, but also in Ukraine and Moldova, the EU is skeptical of the Georgian authorities and blames them for the decline of democratic institutions. However, instead of demonstrating a radical change of attitude at home, Georgian decision-makers are attacking critical voices in the European Parliament, accused of a kind of political "collaboration" with the main Georgian opposition forces.

In this diverse local and regional context, there are three main scenarios for the evolution of EU applications among the "associated trio".

Scenario 1: Ukraine - "first in line" (1 + 2)

Ukraine has the best chance of gaining candidate status, ahead of Moldova and Georgia. The country is the first of the "associated trio" to apply and complete the EU questionnaire. Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ireland and Italy spoke in favor of running for Ukraine. The European Commission also supports this option, especially as the EU institutions realize that candidate status will boost the morale behind Ukraine's defense against Russian aggression

This scenario corresponds to Kyiv's request to take advantage of Georgia and Moldova, which have joined Ukraine's initiative to capitalize on the regional context and openness of decision-makers in Brussels. If the EU and member states decide to make this scenario a reality, then the "associated trio" could end up splitting. As a result, Ukraine will be separated from Georgia and Moldova, which could be given the status of a potential candidate or simply a concrete European perspective. Subsequently, the governments of Tbilisi and Chisinau could facilitate their rapprochement in favor of the candidacy by invoking the Ukrainian precedent.

Scenario 2: Ukraine and Moldova: only two potential candidates (2 + 1)

Another twist in the bid for EU membership focuses on Ukraine and Moldova. Both have the support of the European Commission and are closely watched both in terms of the stability of democratic institutions and the relationship with the Russian factor. In this context, it is omitted that Georgia was the victim of Russian aggression as early as 2008, six years before the annexation of Crimea and the establishment of militarized separatism in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

For this scenario, there is a trend of a “in package” approach towards Ukraine and Moldova, recently exemplified by the synchronization of these countries with the European System of Transmission Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E), starting in mid-March 2022. However, the most the two "associated trio" states could gain is potential candidate status. Such an option would have come from Germany for Ukraine and could become a compromise solution accepted by France, including Denmark and the Netherlands, where there are some fundamental objections.

The same format is possible for Moldova, which cannot be given a more advanced status than for Ukraine. In such a case, the EU will agree to break the "trio", recognizing Georgia's European perspective, and Ukraine, followed by Moldova, will benefit from potential candidate status, similar to that of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo in the EU's "waiting room".

Scenario 3: “The intact trio” - all with a European perspective (1 + 1 + 1)

The third most likely scenario is equal recognition of the European perspective for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, with exclusion from candidacy or potential candidate status. The great differentiation between countries could include the requirements established by the European Commission in the form of conditionality, which will be fulfilled later before a repeated individual evaluation of the applications take place.

Such a scenario will allow the "trio" to remain intact, but with image costs for national governments, on the one hand, and the EU, on the other. At the local level, the central authorities in Kyiv, Chisinau and Tbilisi will have to explain (and in some places justify) the EU's reluctance, under pressure from pro-EU (Ukraine, Georgia) or pro-Russian sectors of society. (Moldova). And at the European level, there could be some political discrepancies between the states that are skeptical of the "open door" policy and, respectively, the EU institutions and the rest of the Member States, which allow the possibility of a European enlargement to the east, along with or after the Western Balkans.

Instead lieu of conclusions…

Based on the signals within the EU, it is clear that the EU institutions, at the level of the European Commission and the European Parliament, are in favor of granting candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova (with some reservations in the Georgian case). This will be reflected in the "opinions" of the European Commission which, while positive, will in no way oblige the Member States to answer in the affirmative. The final filter for the verdict on the candidacy of the three partner countries - Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia - consists of complex negotiations to reach a unanimous vote in the Council of the EU (representing the national governments), where all the member states.

National unity on the status of a candidate for EU membership, which is fueled by the war of national defense (before the democratic revolution of 2014), highlights Ukraine. Moldova faces geopolitical polarization, where the pro-EU government ignores the Euroscepticism of the (pro-Russian) parliamentary opposition. In Georgia, all the main political forces are demanding the candidacy for the EU, against the background of a discredited government and a majority pro-EU opposition, where the main voices suggest that candidate status should be conditional on democratic reforms.

Against the background of Russian aggression, the Ukrainian dossier remains the key to advancing the prospect of EU membership within the Eastern Partnership. It is practically inevitable that the rejection of Ukraine sets a negative precedent for Moldova and Georgia, whose European path currently depends as much on the quality of internal reforms as on the performance of Ukrainian diplomacy and the opening of European capitals for enlargement towards the East.

This analysis is published for the German Hanns Seidel Foundation and the IPN News Agency.

Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor
Dionis Cenușa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
Follow Dionis Cenușa on Twitter

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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