Seize Macron’s idea of a ‘European Political Community’

Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He tweets at @DaliborRohac.

The European Council’s decision last month to extend European Union candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova came as a pleasant surprise, especially to those expecting “old” member countries to derail the process for fear of the disruption that a wider membership base would bring to the bloc — much as France had done in 2019, over accession negotiations with candidate countries in the Western Balkans.

Yet, amid the decision, it’s also important to remember that attaining candidate status is only the beginning, and joining the EU might actually take decades, as French President Emmanuel Macron eagerly pointed out.

Given this reality, the present moment calls for more than simply managing expectations and following the same heavily technical template the EU has applied in previous waves of enlargement. Instead, we need a dose of creativity to extend some of the key benefits of membership in real time to these two countries that have amply demonstrated their commitment to European values – in Ukraine’s case, by blood.

The critics of expansion do have a point. “I am more than skeptical toward those who say that the future of Europe lies in further enlargement, when we can’t find agreement between 28 nations,” Macron famously said in 2019.

There is, indeed, a trade-off between how deep Europe’s political union can be and how wide and diverse its membership base is. And for those who believe the EU is primarily an exercise in state building, there is doubt about which of these should take precedence. “I will refuse all forms of enlargement before deep reform to the way we function institutionally,” Macron added.

Yet, it should also be clear to everyone — including the French president — that the more ambitious forms of European unity remain a pipe dream regardless of whether the EU accepts new members or not.

Pooling of national debt remains a deeply unattractive proposition in the Eurozone’s north. Russia’s war against Ukraine, meanwhile, has pitted many of the “new” members, including Poland, against older ones, including France and Germany, which are more reluctant to respond to Russian aggression forcefully. Therefore, it’s unlikely that Eastern Europeans would be eager to merge their sovereignty on foreign policy and defense questions, and acquiesce to qualified majority voting on issues that are central to their survival as independent political nations.

Yet, as the ball lies in Europe’s court, strategically speaking, the current moment also presents the EU with a unique opportunity.

Experience of previous enlargements shows that bringing Ukraine, a nation of 40 million people, into the single market would generate sizeable economic benefits and bring growth rates up in both old and new member countries. Far from being a liability, Ukraine would also have a lot to teach other European countries about security and defense — both the Permanent Structured Cooperation and the European Defense Fund would be lucky to have Ukraine’s military in their midst.

As such — although it was meant as an alternative to full EU membership — I argue that President Macron’s idea of a “European Political Community” should be seized upon both by Ukrainians and by European proponents of Ukraine’s deeper ties with the West.

Notwithstanding its candidate status, Ukraine’s full membership remains uncertain and subject to veto by France, or any other EU member. But given the current momentum, Ukraine should be given access to as wide an array of EU membership benefits as possible, just like some other non-members — think Iceland or Norway. And these should range from the single market and participation in the EU’s defense initiatives to various mutual recognition and labor mobility schemes.

Demonstrating that ties to the West generate tangible benefits is critical to cementing Ukraine’s place in the community of Western liberal democracies, as well as to preventing a backlash driven by disappointed expectations, as seen in the Western Balkans. Forging a deeper relationship with Ukraine and Moldova is also an opportunity to refresh our thinking regarding the meaning and purpose of European integration.

Contrary to the platonic ideal of an ever-closer union, EU membership doesn’t have to be a binary choice, governed by the one-size-fits-all strictures of previous enlargements. Instead, different facets of membership can be functionally and, often times, legally separated. Needless to say, Ukraine and Moldova should be able to access as many of these perks as they can, even without the formalities of EU accession. It would be an enormous blunder if Brussels answered these two countries’ European aspirations not with nimbleness and creativity, but the usual bureaucratic tedium.