The alternative to a decades-long EU enlargement process would be to revive a concept discussed at the turn of the millennium: Associate memberships as a preliminary stage to full membership writes Andreas Wittkowsky.

Dr Andreas Wittkowsky is a senior researcher at the Berlin Center for International Peace Operation (ZIF).

Ukraine wants it, Moldova wants it, Georgia wants it too: swift membership in the European Union. The so-called Association Trio, formed within the EU’s Eastern Partnership framework, has taken the matter into their hands.

On 28 February, Ukraine applied for membership, and Moldova and Georgia followed suit. Because of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the European Council shortly afterwards instructed the Commission to examine these applications.

Yet the outcome of the informal EU summit in Versailles on 10 and 11 March was restrained. Instead of sending a powerful political signal, the EU remained in the defensive position that it has taken against new members for some time already. The assembled heads of government assured Ukraine in particular that the country is part of the “European family”. But no one wanted to raise hope for a speedy membership process.

The motives of the three aspirants are well understandable. Witnessing the invasion of Ukraine, they want to knit stronger, faster and more binding ties to the EU. What they expect is not only extended support but also more security. But in fact, the accession process may take decades. It hardly lends itself to geopolitical shortcuts.

For one thing, the Trio is still far from ready for accession. Despite all efforts, they only rudimentarily meet the Copenhagen criteria that are a prerequisite for EU membership: stable democratic institutions, a sound rule of law and competitive market economies.

Conversely, the union is presently overstretched to take in new members. Council President Macron has been calling for reforms for some time. He wants to secure the growing union’s capacity to act.

Progress is currently not in sight, while the current setup costs are clearly visible. It was only weeks ago that the union faced considerable internal tensions, not least because of the spat over Polish and Hungarian policies.

The fact that the EU has now closed ranks in the view of war is probably less sustainable than desired. A weak Union due to structural blockades is neither in its own interest nor that of possible new members.

This dilemma offers the EU two options: To stay the present course or to opt for an innovation that would be a strong political symbol.

Continuing with the current policy would relegate the Association Trio to a decades-long process, which is highly uncertain in view of the above mentioned internal difficulties of the EU. Of course, more aid, more cooperation can be offered, possibly the integration into the European Economic Area. Materially, this would certainly help.

But frustration is waiting to settle in. Already today, the EU is less and less successful in “packaging” its support for the countries of the Eastern Partnership in a way that provides positive, forward-looking impulses. The same can be observed in the Western Balkans: 20 years of delayed perspectives and unkept promises have substantially weakened the EU’s credibility, prominently visa liberalisation for Kosovo or the repeatedly postponed start of negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia. In view of their technocratic shell, the EU’s material incentives help less and less – the political momentum has been lost.

The alternative would be to revive a concept discussed at the turn of the millennium: Associate memberships as a preliminary stage to full membership. At the time, the idea was dismissed as promoting solely symbolic politics. But dark times need shining symbols.

The charm of associate memberships is that they can be realised relatively quickly. Associated members would have access to the same benefits they already gained under the Association Agreements with the EU. They could be supplemented by additional incentives. Full participation in the institutions of the EU would be denied, and an observer status be conceivable. That way, the path to full membership could well take longer without producing permanent disappointment.

Of course, changing accession policy is painful. But so are the times. In sending a powerful political signal to the Association Trio, the EU could emerge from its paralysing defensive, which threatens to damage its reputation – and also its political capital – in the long term.

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