Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Membership Drive: The European Union’s Renewed Focus on the European Integration Project
Membership Drive: The European Union’s Renewed Focus on the European Integration Project

Membership Drive: The European Union’s Renewed Focus on the European Integration Project

Bottom Line

  • Despite the European Union’s recent decision to begin membership talks with Ukraine and Moldova and designate Georgia a membership candidate, rapid EU accession is unfeasible.

  • Active conflicts and unresolved territorial divisions will prevent the three countries from joining the European Union for the foreseeable future.

  • EU membership does not offer what Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia seek—a security guarantee against Russia, preferably backed by US power. The three countries pursue the European Union to improve the lives of their citizens, but security is the more consequential prize.

  • The set of rules and norms the three countries need to adopt for membership in Western institutions will inflame the geopolitical crisis between the United States and Russia.

The start of a new year is typically considered a time to “start fresh” with new goals. In that spirit, the European Union has decided to get a head start on pursuing an enduring one—European integration. On Dec. 14, the European Council, the body comprising the heads of state of the EU member states, announced it would begin membership negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova at an unspecified point in the future. Meanwhile, Georgia was granted vague membership “candidacy status,” a lesser designation, reflecting dissatisfaction with what Brussels perceives as the Georgian Dream-led government’s authoritarian tendencies and pro-Russia foreign policy orientation.

The European Union’s latest enlargement decision has been heralded by the publics of the three countries and Western observers alike as a crucial “step forward” toward joining the coveted club. Indeed, many citizens of EU eastern partner countries associate the bloc with higher quality of life and more economic opportunities, among other things. To many Ukrainians, Moldovans, and Georgians, gaining EU membership is also a matter of receiving psychological validation of “Western,” and specifically “European,” identity. Yet, there are reasons to believe that each of the aspirant members’ journeys will be fraught with obstacles in the coming years. It is concerning that the Dec. 14 move was only made possible through creative circumvention of a rule requiring unanimous agreement on such decisions. Moreover, the Union’s publicly articulated enlargement aspirations are at odds with both geopolitical realities and the historical precedent of European integration—in both their EU and NATO manifestations.

The geopolitical competition for influence over Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia will increasingly attract US attention and resources in the coming years as the ongoing conflicts continue to disrupt reform processes, domestic political transformation, and economic development. The set of western-defined rules and norms the three aspiring countries must adopt to qualify for EU and NATO membership will likely exacerbate regional instability as well as tension with Russia.

Territorial Divisions

First, the most glaring issue is that all three countries have unresolved territorial divisions. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, both Georgia and Moldova were born as independent states without full control over their internationally recognized territory. Within de jure Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia emerged as unrecognized statelets, gaining de facto independence in the early 1990s as a result of successful civil wars against Tbilisi. By NATO’s April 2008 decision that Georgia would eventually become an alliance member, the two breakaway regions had been “de facto states” for over a decade, relying on Russian protection to ensure their survival. After Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008, the Kremlin recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, followed by a handful of friendly countries. Since then, Moscow has worked to integrate the territories into the political, military, and economic structures of the Russian Federation. At present, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have existed outside of Tbilisi’s control for thirty years.

Similar circumstances pervade the current geopolitical condition of Moldova. The Soviet collapse caused already existing tensions between Moldovans and Transnistrians to escalate, culminating in a 1991 to 1992 war that resulted in the birth of Transnistria as a de facto state. Russia’s assistance for Transnistria during the war was overt as Moscow sent the Fourteenth Army to fight on the separatists’ side in 1992. Thereafter, Russia’s approach toward the region has been vague. It has not recognized Transnistria’s independence—nor has any UN member state—though it provides practical support in several ways, such as paying pensions to Russian passport holders. Unlike Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Transnistria lacks a shared border with Russia, making formal annexation tricky. This has not stopped Russian officials from toying with the idea of opening another front in the Ukraine war from the region. Regarding NATO, Chisinau’s relations with the alliance are far less institutionalized than Georgia’s. While Moldova has been a longtime NATO partner, military neutrality is enshrined in its constitution.

Meanwhile, the situation in Ukraine is fundamentally different. There is active combat on the ground and little prospect for an end to the hot phase of the conflict anytime soon. Unlike Georgia and Moldova, newly independent Ukraine emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union as a state without territorial fragmentation. Yet, significant ethno-territorial polarization existed. Historically, Ukrainians in the center and west wanted stronger ties with the West and supported EU and NATO membership while those in the south and east preferred closer association with Russia and opposed joining these organizations. The struggles over Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation, from maintaining neutrality to actively seeking to join the European Union and NATO, reflect the country’s regional ethno-linguistic differences, its unique geographic position, and competing views of national history and identity.

Like Georgia, Ukraine was promised future NATO membership in 2008. Until Russia’s invasion in 2022, the country had been unable to maintain a pro-membership stance across changes in government. In 2010, President Viktor Yanukovych withdrew from pursuing NATO membership and instead sought better relations with Russia. Yanukovych fled Ukraine in 2014 following massive protests of his abrupt suspension of an EU association deal. In the ensuing political chaos, Russia carried out a stealthy invasion of Crimea and fomented war in southeastern Ukraine. In March 2014, Crimea was formally annexed into the Russian Federation, leaving Ukraine a territorially fragmented state. Russia’s full-scale assault since February 2022 has only deepened the country’s territorial divisions.

That Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova are each divided countries do not necessarily preclude their EU membership. The accession of Cyprus in 2004 provides historical precedent for integrating a state with unresolved territorial divisions.

In 1974, the ruling military junta in Athens installed a nationalist government favoring the union, or “enosis,” of Cyprus and Greece. This ambition stoked fears of group domination within the ethnic Turkish Cypriot minority on the island. In response, Turkey invaded Cyprus, claiming a duty to protect ethnic kin living abroad. The ensuing war resulted in thousands of deaths, mostly on the Greek Cypriot side, and large-scale population displacement. The conflict left Greek Cypriots as the administrators of internationally recognized Cyprus. Meanwhile, the Turkish Cypriot side emerged as a de facto state whose borders were drawn by war. This was unlike Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were defined administrative units within Soviet Georgia, while Transnistria constituted the western part of the Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic inside Soviet Ukraine. In 1983, the Turkish Cypriot authorities announced the independence of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Turkey recognized it but the UN Security Council declared it illegitimate. In the following years, the security situation on the island settled into equilibrium—active fighting had stopped but no final peace settlement could be made.

The European Union entered accession negotiations with Cyprus in 1998. The move was driven by the prospect that embedding the entire island within the Union could help spur a permanent settlement between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides, if not reunification altogether. Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004 as a de facto divided country, but the whole island is de jure EU territory. Thus, the northern part of the island lies within the European Union but enjoys none of the benefits of club membership until and unless reunification takes place.

At present, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus endures in limbo between two incomplete integration projects. On one side, Turkey provides substantial diplomatic and material support to the authorities of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, without which the de facto state’s continued existence might be in jeopardy. On the other side is the European Union, which is still an attractive institutional destination for aspiring countries amidst signs of so-called enlargement fatigue among some long-standing EU members in recent years.

While Cyprus does serve as precedent for incorporating a divided country into the European Union, the prospect of possible EU (and NATO) accession for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, respectively, is profoundly different. Regarding the former case, the two main external state actors—Greece and Turkey—were anchored to European and Euro-Atlantic institutions. Greece joined the European Union in 1981 while Turkey has been in the membership pipeline, albeit intermittently since talks began in 2005. Both countries are also part of NATO and the Council of Europe. Belonging to such institutions helps to promote cooperation through improved information flow, increased transparency, and predictable patterns of behavior. This is despite the well-known historic rivalry between Greece and Turkey. No such guardrails exist with the situations in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. Instead, the three countries are attempting to break free from Russia’s orbit and formally join “the West,” as signified by membership in its institutions. At the same time, Moscow uses force—or the threat thereof—to maintain some semblance of influence in a region it once dominated.

Security Guarantees

A second and related issue pertains to national security. EU membership may not bring what Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia yearn for—a security guarantee against Russia. While the European Union does in fact have a mutual defense clause, as defined in Article 42.7 of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, it is ambiguous, relatively untested, and not underwritten by US power. Only NATO membership would bring the type of security guarantee that each country seeks.

The EU mutual defense provision commits all members to “provide assistance in response” to an act of armed aggression on the territory of an EU member state, though it does not require taking military action. Members are instead free to decide what kind of assistance to provide, ranging for example from diplomatic backing or humanitarian aid to direct military support. The French government invoked the provision after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, marking the only time it has been used. The French defense minister later admitted the decision was motivated by a desire to promote pan-European solidarity and respond to domestic criticism over ongoing French unilateral military action in Africa. France opted to call on the newfound EU mechanism instead of NATO’s long standing Article V collective defense pledge. This might have been meant to assert European autonomy and an enduring French concern against US dominance in Europe’s security affairs.

In the wake of Russia’s full-scale assault on Ukraine, acute national security concerns have led Finland and Sweden, both formally militarily neutral states and EU members since 1995, to pursue joining NATO to obtain a security guarantee. That the two countries opted for NATO membership when they already enjoyed the protection of Article 42.7 shows that faith in the EU mutual defense clause is flimsy.

Regarding NATO, Article V was enshrined in the alliance’s founding charter in 1949 and is like its EU counterpart in many ways. It compels each ally to respond to an armed attack against one of them “as it deems necessary, including the use of force,” while geographically limited to NATO territory. Thus, Argentina’s 1982 invasion of the Falklands Islands, a British overseas territory, did not trigger a collective NATO response. In fact, Article V has been invoked only once, in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Nevertheless, the George W. Bush administration made it clear that US military operations would use an ad hoc coalition of willing partners in the initial invasion of Afghanistan, outside of NATO’s military command structure. By 2003, however, all NATO allies would contribute to the US-led war in Afghanistan, including Iceland, which has no standing military. Alliance decisions are thus inevitably entangled with political calculations.

In both cases, the security guarantee gained through EU or NATO membership grants enormous discretion to individual members in forming a collective response to external aggression against a fellow member state. Triggering a mutual defense clause does not in fact commit treaty allies to respond militarily to such situations, much less to putting “boots on the ground.” That Ukraine is at war and territorially divided suggests that the European Union’s decision to begin membership talks is mostly symbolic—an expression of geopolitical ambition—which clashes with the current realities of Western policies toward Kyiv. The political consensus among the major power centers in the West—Washington and Brussels among them—is that Ukraine is ineligible for either EU or NATO membership so long as the war with Russia continues.

Out of Order

A final difficulty with the European Union considering membership for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia is that it overlooks the development of European integration since the end of the Cold War.

Nearly every state that has attained both EU and NATO membership over the past three decades has joined the latter organization first. This is because NATO’s admission requirements are easier to meet than the European Union’s. While NATO does require certain political and military standards for members (e.g., civilian control of the military) it does not compare to the accumulated legislation, legal acts, and court decisions constituting EU law that must be adopted by EU members.

Even before the Cold War ended, the new democratic governments in Central and Eastern Europe began signaling their desire to “return to Europe” through membership in Western institutions, including the European Union and NATO. The leaders of the Visegrád Group (i.e., Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) soon learned, however, that obtaining EU membership would take decades, as it required difficult adaptation to EU standards. Moreover, the failed coup by Soviet hardliners in 1991, outbreak of war in Bosnia in 1992, and conflicts in the South Caucasus and Moldova showed that the transitions to democracy and self-determination in former communist lands would not all be peaceful.

Membership in NATO became understood as an easier and quicker route to gain validation and recognition from one of the West’s premier institutions, while obtaining the crucial security guarantee backed by the United States. Accordingly, almost every state that has joined both the European Union and NATO after the Cold War has joined NATO first. Finland’s accession to NATO in 2023, already a longtime EU member, broke this precedent. Sweden may very well do the same, with NATO potentially announcing its accession at the Washington summit in July if not sooner. This is the historical and geopolitical context of the European Union’s potential integration of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia.

Next Steps

The December 2023 decision about incorporating the three countries into the European Union as full members was meant to show that Brussels is serious about carrying on with the European integration project. For this vision to be achieved, two obstacles must be overcome.

First, the three aspiring countries must internalize the deep economic and political reforms that they have so far only partly implemented, to varying degrees. This process will likely take many years, especially for embattled Ukraine, which is reforming while fighting an active war. In all three cases, having unresolved territorial divisions inevitably complicates things as the de facto authorities in the lost territories, which are aligned with Russia, shun EU-mandated reforms.

The second hurdle has to do with the European Union itself. Decisions to invite new members require consensus, which in turn depends on establishing and maintaining political cohesion. The recent discord over whether and how to continue providing economic and military aid to Ukraine suggests that EU unanimity on expanding membership, potentially a more costly undertaking, may be brittle. Moving forward, one possible solution could be to shift from consensus-based decision-making to qualified-majority voting, whereby powerful members like Germany and France hold more sway. Smaller countries, however, would undoubtedly take issue with such radical change, believing that veto power helps preserve their autonomy.

The European Union has set itself an ambitious enlargement goal, which has signaled a desire to create an expanded European order under the leadership of Brussels. Yet, such an order has never existed in the history of Europe. With there being little chance of achieving EU membership anytime soon, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia could instead seek new bilateral or multilateral commitments in the interim, short of full membership. Nevertheless, if there were ever a time for wishful thinking it would be at the beginning of a new year.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

Image: European Union, 2022