Winning the peace in Ukraine requires E.U. membership

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at a Feb. 9 news conference during a summit for European Union leaders in Brussels. (Valeria Mongelli/Bloomberg News)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at a Feb. 9 news conference during a summit for European Union leaders in Brussels. (Valeria Mongelli/Bloomberg News)

Winning the Ukraine war is the priority now, but then comes the task of winning the peace. And that stands to be every bit as complicated and demanding.

One thing is certain: It will be essential to anchor Ukraine firmly in the West and in the structures of European and Atlantic cooperation. This is why winning the peace is possible only with Ukraine as a member of the European Union.

Some years ago, this idea was unthinkable. I recall sitting at the ministerial table in Brussels at moments when even a mention of a “European perspective” for Ukraine was highly contested.

But war has shown that Europe can no longer afford to leave Ukraine in a void. And much can be gained by bringing Ukraine’s highly educated workforce and its human potential into the E.U.

Becoming a member is not easy to accomplish. Accession usually requires years of painful adjustment to the rules and regulations accumulated during decades of European integration. Intricate provisions on health care and industrial standards, for example, are essential to the single market’s functioning. In many regulatory aspects, the E.U. is more integrated than even the United States.

Sweden, Finland and Austria set a record for completing the process before they entered the Union in 1995. These countries took roughly two years to work their way up to the accession threshold — and that was after they had already completed negotiations to enter the single market. Since then, the E.U. has evolved much further, and this has made the enlargement process even more demanding.

What’s more, some European leaders pay lip service to enlargement, but are quick to hit the brakes when an actual process starts.

The Ukrainians have the power to move quickly, and to an impressive extent they are already doing so. A more formal assessment of their progress by the E.U. will come in the fall, and if this is positive, it should lead to a decision to move to a formal accession negotiation.

But many challenges lie ahead. For one, creating a Ukrainian judiciary that is independent and competent — which is essential to the fight against corruption — takes time.

And it’s not only Ukraine that has to change before it can become an E.U. member.

Bringing in such a large country — the largest to date in area, although the poorest in economic terms — will transform the E.U. itself. The union’s huge agricultural and structural subsidy programs will require radical changes. And this will take time and cause turmoil. There will be losers and winners.

There will also be demands to adjust E.U. structures. Ukraine’s size will give it a large number of members of the European Parliament, as well as significant voting power in the Council of the European Union.

As a result, reformers will strengthen their calls to discard the unanimity rule on foreign policy and some other issues and trim the size of the commission. But any changes to E.U. treaties could trigger referendums in one country or another — and that would complicate matters, as referendums in Ireland, France and the Netherlands on treaty changes have shown.

Membership for Ukraine would also reinforce complaints that the E.U.’s center is shifting to the east. Some capitals — you can probably guess which ones — are already uneasy about this prospect.

But if the challenges Ukraine faces as it moves toward E.U. membership are substantial, they fade in comparison with the possible gains. Ukraine’s stability and security are preconditions for the peace and security of Europe. Incorporating Ukraine will provide the E.U. with enormous assets, from human talent to new supplies of food and renewable energy.

Membership for Ukraine will take time and effort, but it is absolutely essential for peace. There is no reason the E.U. can’t start the process within the year.

Carl Bildt is a former prime minister of Sweden and a contributing columnist for The Post.

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