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By any stretch of the imagination, Ukraine probably isn’t joining the EU any time soon.
Plagued by deep structural issues – not to mention Russia’s grinding invasion – it could take decades for the country to get ready – no matter where its heart lies.
Still, Ukrainian accession is a hot topic, with debates raging among analysts and policymakers about what it would mean in practice if the embattled nation entered the fold.
‘The centre of gravity would shift to the east’
Home to some 40 million people, Ukraine would become the union’s fifth-biggest member and largest by land mass, if it joined.
This would raise significant geopolitical implications, potentially paving the way for a new Warsaw-Kyiv axis that could rival the traditional Paris-Berlin one, according to Professor Michael Keating at Aberdeen University in Scotland.
With the “old Franco-German motor not what it used to be… we could certainly see a large shift in the balance of power within the EU,” he told Euronews, though Ukraine itself would not be “very powerful”.
Enlargement could further strain the unity and cohesion of the 27-member state bloc.
“The bigger the European Union gets, the more difficult it becomes to make decisions and engage in collective action,” said Keating.
Already there are major tussles within the EU between western and southern states, eastern and northern, over the nature of the bloc and its objectives.
Relatively new members Hungary and Poland – who both joined in 2004 – have been a particular thorn in the side of Brussels, which has sanctioned them for undermining the rule of law and democracy.
Even before the war ground its economy to dust, Ukraine was one of the poorest countries in Europe.
It had a GDP per capita of $4,800 (€4451) in 2021 – more than ten times less than advanced European economies such as the UK, France and Germany.
According to Jolyon Howorth, a professor of European politics, integrating such a battered and bruised country into the bloc would cost a “horrendous amount”.
It could invariably strain EU finances, possibly diverting funds away from poorer member states, such as Poland, Greece, Hungary, Romania and Spain, all net beneficiaries in 2022.
Yet this has happened before.
Despite “a bit of grumbling” from countries who lost out, Keating says EU funding has historically changed, shifting east and southwards as the EU enlarged in 2004 and 2007.
“That’s part of the normal process of adjustment,” he told Euronews. “They’re losing funding because they’re developing. That’s not much of a problem.”
“It’s a bit difficult to complain about getting richer.”
‘Polish plumber tropes’
In the long run, Ukraine could stand to reap economic gains, especially through attracting foreign investment, if admitted into the EU – the richest trading bloc on the planet.
Plus the need to meet EU eligibility criteria may incentivise the country to tackle deep-seated structural issues, such as corruption.
But Keating issued a warning.
Across many states, EU membership has increased regional disparities, he suggested.
Those living in the area around the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, for example, have a GDP per capita nearly three times higher than in the country’s poorest region.
This is possible in Ukraine, according to Keating. With investment concentrated around Kyiv, he said regions in the east were already “economically marginalised”, yet this is also where “political tensions are the highest”
“That could be a problem,” he said. “Policies [would need to be] in place to make sure there wasn’t too much division in the country when it came to economics and wealth.”
In the more immediate term, Holyworth says it is “almost inevitable” there would be migratory flows out of Ukraine.
Any mass influx of Ukrainian workers runs the risk of creating a possible political backlash in existing member states – irrespective of their economic contribution.
Experiencing a boom at the time, the UK was one of the only major economies not to limit the number of eastern European workers, with immigration later becoming a hugely contentious issue within the Brexit vote.
This is despite the positive economic impact of European immigrants on the country.
But Keating claimed: “That’s already happened. Poland was filled with Ukrainians, even before the war.”
“Labour markets in western countries need these workers,” he continued, though recognised “economics and politics don’t always align”.
‘What are the limits of Europe?’
Writing in the New Statesman, a British political magazine, essayist Jeremy Cliffe claimed leaving Ukraine out in the cold would be a dangerous thing, possibly inviting new conflicts.
“Imagine a Ukraine worn down structurally and industrially by years of war; its economy sclerotic and investment sparse; a slow-motion failed state; its voters and leaders resentful of an EU that failed to stand by its promises.”
“Compared with this scenario, the challenges of rapid EU enlargement do not look quite so insurmountable,” he added.
Russia’s invasion has turbo-charged support for EU membership amongst Ukrainians. Ninety-two per cent want to join the club by 2030, according to a poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. Before the conflict, only 67% said they would vote yes in a membership referendum.
Debates around Ukraine’s EU membership ultimately raise profound existential questions about the bloc itself.
“Enlargements constantly call into question the reason why we’re doing it,” said Holywoth. “What is the purpose of further engagement? Are we doing it for its own sake? Can you keep on enlarging more or less indefinitely?”
“If you take that logic that the European Union can just keep extending itself, ever further forward, then it rapidly gets out of hand.”
Again he pointed to “ unresolved divisions” about what the union really is, saying it was journeying to the unknown.
“We’ve never defined our destination. We’ve simply said that’s where we’re heading. And I think with the potential membership of Ukraine, we need to have a much clearer answer to that question: What’s the point of all this?”