Why Ukraine should become a Balkan country

Ukrainian politicians, diplomats, journalists and intellectuals should start paying more attention to how the countries of South-Eastern Europe (SEE) are currently preparing for their entry into the European Union. Kyiv can accelerate its own European integration by entering a number of SEE cooperation formats specifically designed to prepare the Western Balkan states for their future EU membership. 

How can Ukraine persuade the European Union to provide it with a membership perspective and to start entry negotiations? Many decision-makers in Europe still do not see Ukraine as a serious candidate for accession and do not trust its government’s dedication and/or ability to deeply integrate Ukraine into the EU. Western European politicians and diplomats are therefore shying away from the tasks, responsibilities and costs associated with Ukrainian accession.

This is in spite of the fact that Western public opinion, the European Parliament, and experts on Eastern Europe have become remarkably pro-Ukrainian since the Orange Revolution of 2004. Yet some Western states are afraid of Russia and averse to risking a rise in tensions with Moscow. It will not be easy for Ukraine to change the Western political class’s negative perception of its potential and the European public’s skepticism regarding its future EU membership.

One way for Kyiv to speed up this process is to redirect its international focus towards other current or recent accession candidates. In particular, Ukrainians should use the experiences and institutions of the Western Balkan countries and learn from the former Yugoslav republics how they have achieved their current positions vis-à-vis Brussels.

Since the Kosovo war, Europe has built a sophisticated regional reform infrastructure for the SEE that has led to significant progress in the “Europeanization” of the Balkans, i.e. its legal and practical incorporation of the EU’s acquis communautaire. Ukraine should explore whether it can join some of these SEE regional pre-accession mechanisms, and try as much as possible to participate in the elaborate membership-preparation system established for the Western Balkan states.

There are 16 SEE bodies, created with the help of Brussels, to foster transnational integration in former Yugoslavia and Albania. They are:

  • Regional Cooperation Council (RCC)
  • Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA)
  • Regional Anti-Corruption Initiative (RAI)
  • South Eastern Europe Health Network (SEEHN)
  • South Eastern Working Group for Regional and Rural Development, (SWGRRD),
  • Center for Public Employment Agency for Southeastern European Countries (CPESSEC),
  • Regional Youth Cooperation Center (RYCO),
  • South Eastern European Law Enforcement Center (SELEC),  
  • Center for Security Cooperation (RACVIAC),
  • Education Reform Initiative for SEE (ERISEE),  
  • Regional School for Public Administration (RESPA), 
  • Regional Disaster Preparedness Center (DPPI),
  • South Eastern European Center for Entrepreneurship Learning (SEECEL),
  • Center of Excellent in Finance (CEF),
  • Regional Environmental Center (REC).

In addition, there is a top level intergovernmental dialogue format, the so-called “Berlin Process”, that regularly brings together political leaders of the Western Balkans and interested EU member states. This informal meeting series was initiated by Germany in 2014 to foster political stability and national security of the SEE candidate countries.

Some of these bodies and formats may be persuaded to incorporate Ukrainian representatives and organs. If successful, this could help Kyiv to better frame the country – in both practical and symbolic terms – as an EU candidate, and to gradually enter the EU’s current group of accession candidate countries “through the Balkan backdoor.”

Would the Balkan founding countries of these regional structures agree to Ukrainian membership? Moldova – like Ukraine, an EU Eastern Partnership member – is already in most of the listed SEE structures, including the RCC and CEFTA, and has helped them to develop. Ukraine’s membership would add further weight to these structures because of its market size and geopolitical relevance as a pivotal country between Russia and the West.

Some Balkan elites could see Ukrainian membership as a threat to their dominance of the EU’s current SEE integration framework. Yet, it should be clear to all those Balkan politicians and diplomats who promote their countries’ rapprochement with the West that, in the last decade, supporting Ukraine has become a marker of a pro-Western stance for many decision-makers in Washington, Brussels, London and Berlin. Ukrainian membership in the new SEE structures could therefore also help Western Balkan countries to develop their image and relations vis-à-vis the US, EU and Germany.

Ukrainians tend to argue in favor of their readiness for, and inclusion into, the EU from a somewhat Manichean world view. They often present themselves as expressly non-Russian, anti-Eurasian and pro-Western, and advertise their country’s relevance as being Europe’s bulwark against Eastern barbarism. This argument might be true or not, but it is not very effective in Western Europe. The EU does not define itself in opposition to Moscow as Kyiv does.

Instead, Brussels’s Europeanization concept is to pacify and unite the continent via deeper economic integration, partial cultural approximation, cumulative bureaucratic standardization, and ever more democratization. The provision of security assurances, international integration, geopolitical weight, and even some non-military collective defense – above all, via the EU’s economic leverage against outsiders – is part and parcel of this process.

The latter benefits are especially attractive to Ukraine. But they are not the key drivers or primary purpose of EU. The modus operandi of the union is instead an accumulation of baby steps, leading over time to qualitative change in an indeterminate direction, rather than implementation of grand schemes to change the world according to a clearly defined end result.

Ukrainian diplomats and experts are, of course, familiar with the peculiarly postmodern nature of European integration and its effects beyond the EU’s borders. Yet the broader political and intellectual elite of Ukraine – and especially its party leaders – have not yet sufficiently internalized that Ukraine can only become a full part of this process by seriously adapting to it.

Ukrainian representatives’ frequently bombastic rhetoric, various PR campaigns, excessively emotional appeals, sweeping historic refences, and many symbolic gestures are understandable.  They should be seen against the background of Ukraine’s epic confrontation with Russian imperialism, the enormous suffering and thousands of deaths caused by Moscow’s continuing hybrid war against Kyiv, as well as many Westerners’ continuing naiveté with regard to the nature of Putinism. For Ukraine, the EU is today thus doubly attractive as both an overtly economic project and an implicit security provider.

Nevertheless, the EU cannot change the bureaucratic rather than geostrategic logic of its operation because of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Further successes in Ukraine’s European integration will thus have to follow long-winded procedures somewhat similar to Ukraine’s complicated formulation and ratification of the Association Agreement, or to the protracted negotiation and implementation of the Visa Liberalization Action Plan with the EU.

The Western Balkans’ various cooperation frameworks with Brussels and Berlin provide ready-made pathways to follow a strategy of incremental approximation and integration by pragmatic rather than rhetorical means. In addition to driving forward the ongoing association process with the European Union, the transnational SEE partnership schemes and other similar instruments for the transposition of knowledge, rules and practices should be actively studied, approached and utilized by Kyiv as well as its Westerns friends.

Günther Fehlinger is Chairman of the NGO “Europeans for Tax Reforms” and Board Member of the Action Group for European and Economic Integration of the Southern Balkans.

Andreas Umland is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, and editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” published by ibidem Press at Stuttgart and distributed by Columbia University Press at New York.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our newsletters

Be the first to know about our latest publications, podcasts, events, and job opportunities. Join our community and stay connected!