EU’s pivotal steps toward Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia: A personal perspective on the region’s historic shift

Professor Cristina Vanberghen delivers her opinion on the European Council's decision to green-light negotiation talks with Ukraine and Moldova.
Visite de Volodymyr Zelenskyy, président de l'Ukraine, à Bruxelles, en marge du Conseil européen extraordinaire
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine with Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament. Photo: Dati Bendo, European Union, 2023.

It is impossible for me not to write about Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia and the EU’s decision to bring them closer to Europe. My involvement with Ukraine in the European Parliament and the nostalgic memories of my childhood holidays spent in these countries, all while living under the shadow of dictatorship in my native Romania, make this topic deeply personal. The vivid recollection of photos taken by my mother, capturing moments next to the revered statues of these nations, along with our innumerable voyages in these countries and my diplomatic contacts and personal friendships with nationals, has provided me with a profound understanding of these countries’ aspirations and rich cultural heritage.

Yesterday, EU leaders reached a significant milestone by agreeing to initiate accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova. President Michel hailed this landmark decision as “a clear signal of hope for their people and for our continent.” Notably, this achievement unfolded in the face of threats from Hungarian PM Orbán to veto Ukraine’s accession. However, he ultimately abstained from the vote and left the room before the decision on Ukraine’s EU membership. Chancellor Scholz played a pivotal role in persuading Orbán to clear the way for the decision. Additionally, President Michel announced that Georgia would receive EU candidate status. The leaders also gave their approval to open accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina, pending a review of its compliance with membership criteria. President Macron, in a statement on X (formerly Twitter), extended congratulations to the three countries.

Viktor Orbán favorite tool: veto

The celebratory mood, however, was abruptly cut short as Hungary blocked €50 billion in further EU aid for Ukraine just hours after the membership agreement was reached. Orbán posted on social media after the session, stating that he vetoed the €50 billion EU aid package as well as the MFF review. He added that they will come back to the decision next year “after proper preparation”. Orbán’s Facebook video, released shortly afterward, stated that if the 26 other EU countries insist on starting membership talks, they should “go their own way,” as Hungary does not want to share in this “completely senseless, irrational, and wrong” decision.

Meloni, perceived as one of Orbán’s closest allies, was given the mandate by Macron, Scholz, von der Leyen, and Michel to convince Orbán to drop his veto. Meloni has made a “pact with the devil” to avoid paralysis, with Orbán being offered to join Meloni’s conservatives in exchange for more EU money going to Budapest. Orbán “stole the stage” at the summit, while also quoting HR Borrell describing the need for continued and increased aid for Ukraine as an “existential” issue with safety considerations that go beyond Ukraine.

The “historic” decision is a “strong political signal” of support for President Zelensky. The decision is a major win for Zelensky as he struggles to convince Republicans in Congress to back further US aid for Ukraine. Ukraine’s Deputy PM for European Integration, Stefanishyna, defends the country, stating it is “more than ready” to engage in EU accession talks. She adds that Kyiv is “very proud of being closer to Europe despite the price we are paying” and expresses confidence that EU membership will be settled before the target of 2030.

Viktor Orban
Viktor Orbán with other EU leaders before the European Council, 14 December 2023. Photo: Orbán Viktor/X.

Turkey's protracted EU accession path

A substantial workload awaits our neighbours, and the journey ahead for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia is undeniably challenging. Moreover, it’s crucial to reflect on the significant historical context; in 2005, the European Union (EU) took a momentous step by formally initiating accession negotiations with Turkey. This decision marked the inception of an intricate and prolonged process toward potential membership in the bloc for Turkey.

Regrettably, despite initial optimism, the negotiations have encountered numerous obstacles over the years, leaving Turkey’s EU accession as a distant and uncertain prospect. Turkey has been criticized for its human rights record, including its treatment of minorities, its crackdown on dissent, and its restrictions on freedom of expression. The EU has also expressed concerns about Turkey’s democratic backsliding, particularly in the wake of a failed coup attempt in 2016. The EU has urged Turkey to further liberalize its economy, improve its business environment, and reduce its reliance on state-controlled industries.

Furthermore, Turkey’s disputes with Greece and Cyprus over maritime boundaries and energy resources have strained relations with the EU. The EU has criticized Turkey’s drilling activities in disputed waters and its militarization of the Eastern Mediterranean. Despite the challenges, Turkey remains committed to its EU accession aspirations, taking steps to address some concerns raised by the EU.

How will Russia respond to the EU's historic decision on Ukraine and Moldova?

The recent applications for EU membership by Ukraine and Moldova have added a new layer of complexity to the EU’s enlargement process. Their applications have also been driven by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the desire to integrate further with the West. The EU has expressed its support for Ukraine and Moldova’s aspirations for EU membership. However, it is likely to take many years, for these countries to meet the accession criteria. In the meantime, the EU will continue to provide them with assistance and support as they work to reform their institutions and strengthen their rule of law.

Predicting Russia’s response to Ukraine’s potential EU accession remains uncertain, but potential retaliatory measures could encompass escalated military pressure. Russia might augment its military presence, conduct more exercises, and initiate new military offensives. It could impose trade restrictions or financial penalties, adversely affecting Ukraine’s economy and complicating its path to EU membership. Russia might support pro-Russian separatists or engage in covert operations to undermine the Ukrainian government, hindering reforms necessary for EU integration.

Transitioning to a separate geopolitical setting, Moldova, Russia’s potential responses could encompass economic pressure: imposing sanctions, trade restrictions, or financial penalties to impede Moldova’s EU-related reforms. It could destabilize the government or undermine support for EU membership through support for anti-EU movements or pro-Russian politicians. Likewise, in response to the EU granting Georgia candidate status, Russia is likely to react with a mix of apprehension and annoyance. While stopping short of employing the same level of pressure as with Ukraine and Moldova, Russia might resort to diplomatic and subversive tactics. This could involve supporting anti-EU movements, attempting to destabilize the government, or imposing economic sanctions to dissuade Georgia from EU integration.

The EU’s enlargement process is complex and challenging and the EU remains committed to supporting their efforts to reform and strengthen their institutions. The accession process can be a powerful tool for promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and it can help to bring stability and prosperity to the region. Only time will tell whether the EU’s enlargement aspirations will be realized for these countries, but the process itself can already have a positive impact.

Cristina ULB photo

Professor Dr. Cristina Vanberghen

Professor Vanberghen is an academic and political commentator, now based at the European University Institute in Florence, and a senior expert with the European Commission. A French-Romanian national, she is an internationally recognised expert in digitalization, artificial intelligence, consumer policy and cybersecurity. She has been consistently ranked as a “Top EU Influencer” by ZN Consulting.

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