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Let Ukrainians — not Ukraine — join the EU

Florian Trauner is a professor of political science at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and co-directs the VUB’s Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Migration and Minorities (BIRMM).

As Russia’s war against Ukraine wages on, European Union nations have thus far opened their borders and welcomed Ukrainians with open arms. With more than one million people already fleeing the fighting, the sheer numbers will present Europe with a refugee challenge of unprecedented scale. But the crisis also presents a historic opportunity to rethink what it means to belong to the EU. 

In normal times, the EU’s asylum system is based on the individual assessment of each migrant’s claim to protection. But with so many people arriving in such a short space of time, this approach cannot work. According to the U.N.’s Refugee Agency, Russia’s attack will likely create “Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century.” The European Commission estimates that up to 6.5 million Ukrainians could be forced to flee. 

The EU has already taken the historic decision to grant newly arrived Ukrainians with a temporary protection status, giving them temporary residence permits and access to medical treatment, employment and education in the EU. But we can still do more. 

Russia’s invasion has accelerated the rapprochement between the EU and Ukraine. Kyiv has formally requested a fast-track procedure to become a candidate country for EU membership — a request that has been warmly received by the EU’s leaders and the European Parliament.

This has raised expectations in Ukraine, but joining the EU is not an easy thing to do. The EU cannot throw away the basics of its enlargement policies. A candidate country must still meet a range of demanding conditions, which include becoming a stable democracy and functioning market economy, and incorporating all existing EU rules and regulations into the domestic legal framework. 

Weakening those conditions wouldn’t be good for Ukraine or the EU. Doing so would also cause frustration and unrest in the Western Balkans, another group of nations keen to join the union, as well as countries like Turkey, where the accession process has been frozen. And if the EU were to accept both Ukraine and the Western Balkans into its fold, it would then overburden its institutional structures and decision-making procedures. 

Fortunately, there’s a way to thread the needle. The EU could extend Ukrainians — but not Ukraine — some of the core benefits of membership before the country actually joins. Specifically, it could give Ukrainians the right of free movement and residence inside the EU, allowing them to look for jobs and live anywhere in the bloc.

Legally speaking, the EU member countries would have to liberalize their labor migration laws to do so, but it should still be framed as getting (de facto) access to “the right of free movement in the EU.” And in practice, it would create a new way — for individuals, not states — to be a part of the EU.

During the enlargement process, this right of free movement for Ukrainians should also be linked to progress made in terms of democratic consolidation and rule of law reforms. If the reforms are unsatisfactory, the right to move and work freely inside the EU could then be phased out or withdrawn.  

This could be a game changer for the EU’s enlargement policy. The EU has lacked tangible and credible incentives for a while now and has not managed to prevent some candidate countries from democratic backsliding. For example, Balkan strongmen, such as Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić, have undermined the separation of powers and flirted with rapprochement with Russia.  

If a free movement deal for Ukrainians succeeds, the EU could then apply it to the Western Balkans on a country-by-country basis. It could, for example, provide more serious reformers like North Macedonia with earlier access to the right of free movement inside the EU, while refraining from giving the same right to the citizens of more autocratic regimes in the neighborhood. Such a differentiation could likely increase electoral pressure to take EU-demanded reforms more seriously.

A large-scale influx of Ukrainians is already happening, and it’s not being politicized or opposed by a majority of EU citizens. The EU now has an unforeseen window of opportunity for a new enlargement policy, one that could redraw its relationship with the people of its neighborhood.

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