EU membership of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia

Just a NATO surrogate?

By Jürgen Dieringer, Brussels

Ukraine applied for membership in the EU. The same did the Republic of Moldova and Georgia. The refusal of NATO to take these countries in makes the EU look like a second-choice alternative. But this is a misunderstanding. EU membership brings in NATO indirectly, without provoking the big Russian Bear to the same extent as NATO does.

Two essential conditions for EU membership

Accession to the EU is based on some objective criteria that decision-makers must consider. At the same time, membership applications have to be judged politically concerning their geostrategic implications and the implications for the EU itself.

There are two primary conditions for becoming a member of the EU: the applicant must be a European state. That means it must be located in Europe and have statehood. The EU rejected Morocco’s application in 1987 with reference to Morocco not being “European”. Whereas Ukraine and Moldova are clearly “European” in geographic terms, it can be disputed in the case of Georgia. Still, Turkey is a candidate, although just a tiny part of the Turkish surface is on European soil. Therefore, the geographic situation of Georgia should not be a problem.

The second condition is statehood. The Austrian theoretician Georg Jellinek defined statehood alongside the three parameters territory (Staatsgebiet), power (Staatsmacht) and people (Staatsvolk). The country must be a culturally compound entity that exercises power over a secured territory to classify as a state. In all three countries discussed, there are pitfalls in this respect. The most visible is that all three countries don’t have complete control over their territory. For example, Russian troops partly occupy Ukraine, the same holds for Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia). In the Republic of Moldova, separatists hold the Transnistrian territory hostage with the help of so-called (Russian) peacekeepers.

Sustained statehood is a central criterion but does not entirely rule out membership, as the case of Cyprus shows. The EU took the entire island in, although a Turkey-supported puppet regime recognized only by Turkey governs the northern part of the country.

Particular conditions for EU membership: Copenhagen criteria

Beyond the formal criteria of “Europe” and “statehood”, membership in the EU is based on the so-called Copenhagen criteria, agreed upon at the European summit in Copenhagen in 1993. This set of rules was prepared to make the EU fit for the accession of new member states from Eastern Europe. The Copenhagen criteria concern – if we express them not in their wording but the sense they represent – democracy, a market economy, and the rule of law. Beyond fundamental rights, this includes the ability of an acceding country’s economy to withstand the pressures of the European Single Market and to implement the acquis communautaire (the “laws” and regulations of the EU) in the national context.

Harmonizing accessing countries with EU standards requires complex negotiations. Often derogations (exemptions) are to be negotiated. The relevant negotiation chapters have to be opened by consent of all EU members, and they have to be closed by consent again. That means that at almost any moment during negotiations, a member state can block accession by just refusing to open or close a chapter. Cases are numerous, and Turkey maybe is the best example: out of 35 chapters, 16 were opened, only one is (temporarily) closed. Negotiations started 17 years ago, in 2005, and are suspended today due to undemocratic tendencies in Turkey. The fact that there are many veto points on the way shows that the run-up to membership is not necessarily self-perpetuating. And it is time-consuming.

The core problem: unsustained conditionality

The Copenhagen criteria included a fourth point, not directed at new members, but at the EU itself. The EU has to be ready to take in new members. It will have to be able to produce legal norms even if more partners sit at the negotiation table. So it does matter whom you take in. During accession negotiations, member states have a firm position vis-à-vis acceding countries (see veto points), and conditionality makes acceding states “behave”. This conditionality gets partly lost after accession. The Article 7 procedure (TEU) currently used against Hungary and Poland lacks power, as two countries can pool up to protect each other. Today, the post-accession blues blows. In the region East-Central and Southeast Europe, overall, democracy is backsliding, as data of the Bertelsmann Foundation shows:

Source: Bertelsmann Transformation Index 2022;*2022*CV:CTC:SELAFG*CAT*AFG*REG:TAB

EU and internal frictions: Political and structural shortcomings

The problem is unanimity. Countries have refused to pool sovereignty on the European level in many essential policies, mainly the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), or the budgetary process. Providing security – protecting the people from internal and external threats – is an essential function of a state. What remains of a state, so the notion, if even such fundamental tasks get shifted to “Brussels”? Reluctance to do so is strong, and it did not end with the UK, one of the retarding forces, leaving the EU. Nation-states are the bottleneck, and if we want the EU to be more present on the international level, we have to tame Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, and Budapest and introduce majority voting in these policies as well, especially as European citizens generally do trust the EU more than their own national parliaments and governments.

Source: Standard Eurobarometer 95, Spring 2021:

Eurobarometer data shows that this is actually what the European population wants: collective security and a more vital role of the EU in the world. There is very high support for a real CSDP among citizens, and the support is exceptionally high in the Baltic states.

Source: Standard Eurobarometer 95, Spring 2021;

A tricky clause: Collective security

Until recently, the trend in the EU was more to “digest” the former enlargement rounds before going any further, especially as some countries now require referenda in the ratification process. Why bother? Still, it makes sense to push ahead for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, especially regarding security. NATO’s Article 5 provision is famous. It declares that an attack on one NATO country is considered an attack on all its members. So far, Article 5 was pulled only once: in the aftermath of 9/11. Surprisingly, and although the military dimension of the EU is underdeveloped, the Union has a comparable clause in Article 42.7 Treaty on European Union (TEU). The clause was pulled the first time by the French president Hollande when Paris fell victim to terrorist attacks in 2015. Now it is on the table again, especially as the Baltic states require support vis-à-vis an aggressive Russia.

Article 5, NATO-TreatyArticle 42.7, Treaty on European Union
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with article 51 of the United Nations charter.

The collective security clause of the EU is even “denser” than NATO’s Article 5. It reads “all means in their power” compared to “such action as it seems necessary” in the North Atlantic Treaty. That means that, at least on paper, the EU is a security provider, too, not NATO alone.

EU or NATO: Does it make any difference for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia?

What is the difference, and could the EU replace NATO as the primary security provider in Europe? When it comes to military spending, the combined military expenditure of France and Germany easily matches Russia. With nuclear capabilities, the numbers are different: the only nuclear power in the EU, France, possesses only under 5 percent of the Russian amount of warheads. Even combined with non-EU Britain, the nuclear capabilities of the two western European powers are still way less than 10 percent of the Russian. So the EU could defend against Russia conventionally, but not if nuclear options are on the table. Therefore, the US nuclear “umbrella” is a vital piece of European defense.

Lord Ismay, the first Secretary-General of NATO, described the raison d’etre of NATO to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down. To keep the Americans in is not self-explanatory anymore. What if the US is unwilling to take responsibility at the level Washington kept up during the last 70 years? Trump’s description of NATO as being braindead is not only an outflow of a realist’s general skepticism about the importance of institutions. It is also putting a finger in the wound of NATO losing its direction after the Cold War. Any future change in the US government may become an existential threat to European security, especially for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. Having the EU as an alternative – or an extension – makes absolute sense. Making Europe strong does not mean pushing the US out. The Berlin plus-agreement of 2002 settled the formerly jealous relationship between the two institutions. The interaction was put on a more cooperative basis. Strengthening Europe now means strengthening the entire Euroatlantic area.

Against this background, Art 42.7 TEU is a pacemaker. Invoking Art 42.7 would inevitably be followed by invoking Art 5 North Atlantic Treaty if an attack on an EU country was to take place. Through the backdoor, membership in the EU would provide comparable security guarantees like a NATO membership.

The pros & cons of taking the hitchhikers in

From a zero-sum-game realist perspective, the pros of allowing countries like Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova to accede to the EU are clear: enlarging our camp makes the enemy’s camp smaller in relative terms and therefore increases our security. Seen from Poland or Romania, enlargement adds a buffer between the respective homelands and the big Russian Bear. Strategically, Georgia may be a suitable ramp for involvement in the Gulf and the Middle East. Another pro – seen from a more liberal perspective – is that enlarging the room of democracy always makes sense. Democracies do not fight wars against each other. And the bigger the single market and the more integrated economic policymaking, the better. Complex interdependence reduces insecurity. Both Democratic Peace Theory and Economic Peace Theory hold arguments for enlargement.

The cons have more to do with the internal structure of the EU. Taking in unstable democracies means importing problems. The institutional structure is already under stress with 27 members – it will be even more so with 30. Aiming too much threatens what is already achieved, as conditionality may not work after accession. Membership of Moldova, Ukraine and/or Georgia in the EU requires institutional reform.

Chances for EU-Membership in the Post-Soviet space

The chances of the three countries at stake for EU membership are different. In a mid-term perspective, Ukraine may be an interesting country for the Union with respect to strategic and economic parameters. Still, it is hardly imaginable that an occupied country becomes a member of the EU. The question may arise seriously only after pacifying the present conflict. Georgia is geographically isolated; it may be difficult and costly to sustain Georgia’s membership in a geographically hostile environment. For some EU countries, that may be too adventurous. The best chance has Moldova, maybe not via the classical enlargement process, but via Eastern Germany’s route: unification with a current EU member (Romania). The population of Romania favors such a scenario. In Moldova itself, the supporters were in the minority before the Ukrainian conflict, but the number of supporters grew. The present situation may be a game-changer here.

There is no easy answer to further enlargement of the European Union. The EU is not and cannot be a NATO surrogate militarily. However, membership still makes a lot of sense for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, not only for economic reasons but also for securing NATO backing through the backdoor. Even the EU could benefit, given it manages to get engaged in institutional reform. The window of opportunity may be wide open.


Dr. Jürgen Dieringer is a Brussels-based political analyst. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Brussels School of Governance and Honorary Professor of Andrássy University Budapest. He has published widely on European Integration and East- and Central Europe.