A silly idea, you might say, now when Russia has just amputated parts of Ukraine’s territory? When we are facing the possibility of a war between Ukraine and Russia? When our political leaders are haplessly searching for the right words to comment the next level of escalation, triggered by a reckless and irresponsible autocrat?
On the contrary. It would be a historic chance, a step that would give the EU the chance to become again an agenda setter, rather just following, late and indecisive, a playbook set by others.
Time to remind the our political leaders that the enlargement policy is the most powerful foreign policy tool the EU ever had.
And using it would come without any cost and concrete obligations while bringing huge and immediate effects.
There is a precedent: the EU offered a membership perspective to the countries of the Western Balkans in May 1999, at the apex of the Kosovo war. Many thought at that time that the EU had gone mad.
But the results of this move topped the keenest expectations: the EU became the agenda-setter in the Western Balkans, which turned their efforts from fighting over territory and history to political and economic reforms, as this allowed them to move closer to Europe.
This was a major EU success story — even if, 23 years later, most of the Western Balkan states are still in a holding pattern.
No European country is more committed to getting closer to the EU than Ukraine, and the EU has exploited this to nudge the country towards major reforms.
However, the EU has so far stopped short of declaring Ukraine eligible for EU membership, since our political leaders realised that such a step would not be popular with their own electorates.
Ukraine rather than Turkey?
But times have changed. Turkey (the pet hate of many opponents of enlargement) is not interested in the EU anymore. And Ukraine is perceived more positively today by Europeans than one or two decades ago.
Declaring Ukraine a (potential) candidate for enlargement would come at zero cost to the EU.
It does not mean that the EU will have to do more for Ukraine than it actually does.
It does not mean that Ukraine will actually join the EU within the next decades.
With Turkey and North Macedonia, we have seen that candidates can be in endless holding patterns. At any stage, any member state can bring the process to an hold via a veto.
For Ukraine, however, this would be a powerful signal that they are not alone and that they matter for Europe. It would also be a powerful signal to Russia (and its friends) that there are alternatives to autocratic regimes with nationalist narratives.
Such a move will prevent further destabilisation of the region as it will make Ukraine refocus on its internal reforms, rather than trying to get back lost territories by force.
There is no risk for the EU to be dragged in a conflict, as there is no obligation to the Union to assist a candidate to defend their territories. And, like in Kosovo, a bit of fuzziness can always help: imagine a clause that the country can become only a member, once its territorial conflicts are resolved in a sustainable matter.
The EU has the unique opportunity to change the narrative of the conflict. If it wants to be taken serious as a geopolitical actor, it should seize it.