Ukraine has recently applied to join the European Union. While EU officials have been supportive of the beleaguered nation and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen went so far as to say, “We want them in the European Union,” there are obstacles to Ukraine’s accession that could well prove insurmountable. And there are considerable downsides for Ukraine itself.
The first reason is the Cohesion Policy. Under this policy, the EU redistributes wealth through a variety of funds (the Cohesion Fund, Regional Development Fund, European Social Fund, etc.) These funds, which make up close to 40 percent of the EU’s budget for 2021-27, are meant to subsidize and help bring the poorer member states up to speed. Although wealthy member states can and do receive money from some of these funds, poorer members are vastly overrepresented among the recipients.
If Ukraine were to be admitted to the EU, it would become the poorest country in the union. In fact, Ukraine is already the poorest country in Europe. Ukraine’s per capita GDP is $4,384. Bulgaria, the current poorest member of the EU, has a per capita GDP of $11,332 – two and a half times that of Ukraine. These are pre-war figures and, unfortunately, Ukraine is likely to be even further behind the rest of Europe economically by the end of this war.
Not only is Ukraine poor, it is also really big. In fact, if admitted it would be the fifth most populous state in the EU. Under the Cohesion Policy, Ukraine would receive more funds than any other country in the union. And it wouldn’t even be close.
There are only two options to accommodate Ukraine: Either the countries that currently receive a lot of funds under the Cohesion Policy—such as Poland, Spain and Italy—would have to make do with less funding and give a large chunk of the existing pool of funds to Ukraine. Or, the budget could be increased to accommodate Ukraine’s accession. The first option would be vetoed by at least half a dozen member states, but the latter option is also politically untenable. Redistribution of funds has never been popular in the wealthier member states, especially not now after massive pandemic-related spending increases. Another permanent increase in the EU membership fees of the countries that are already paying more than they are getting would be a hard sell, and Ukraine would have to be subsidized by Western Europe for at least a generation, if not permanently.
Since admitting Ukraine would have such a large impact on the EU budget, there is no way to admit Ukraine now and worry about the cost later. Adding insult to injury, it is very much debatable whether the Cohesion Policy has any positive effect at all on the countries where the money is spent. To the Western member states, admitting Ukraine means transferring likely hundreds of billions of euros to another country, with uncertain returns.
Second, let’s consider freedom of movement. Membership in the EU allows Ukrainians to relocate to any other country in the union. Bulgaria experienced serious emigration after joining the EU in 2013: 900, 000 Bulgarians now live in other EU countries—and there were only 7.2 million to begin with! And again, Bulgaria has a much higher standard of living than Ukraine, while Ukraine’s population (over 41 million) is bigger. The kind of migration that could result from Ukrainians having access to freedom of movement could very well be the most massive since World War II.
We do have a responsibility to help refugees from Ukraine, of course. But aid to refugees fleeing an invasion is something completely different than permanent freedom of movement. In fact, there are several reasons to believe that freedom of movement would hurt Ukraine:
After the war, Ukraine will need its citizens to stay and rebuild the country. Freedom of movement would dramatically slow down that rebuilding, as millions and millions of young and educated people would move, preferring to live in a developed Western European country as opposed to staying in their bombed-out shell of a homeland.
To make matters worse, Ukraine has an exceptionally low birthrate at 1.3 children born per woman over a lifetime, far below the 2.1 replacement rate. The country’s population has been in decline since the 1990s, and its population pyramid is a sad sight. While it is possible for countries to gain from emigration if, for example, those who are long-term unemployed and/or have no skills that are in demand in the domestic labor market emigrate, it is safe to say that this does not apply to Ukraine.
Finally, while Ukraine has united to fight off the Russian invaders, support for EU membership is far from universal, and support has increased or decreased largely dependent on outside events: Prior to the occupation of Crimea, support for EU membership stood at only 38 percent in Ukraine. The occupation caused an increase in this support as Ukrainians sought the security of EU membership and turned against associating with Russia.
That, however, is not a good reason to join the EU.
Several Eastern European countries joined the EU for more or less the same reason: They sought security, to distance themselves from Russia, and the economic benefits of belonging to the single market. Enthusiasm for EU membership was as great in these countries as it is in Ukraine now, and several of them have spent years clashing with Brussels on everything from LGBT and abortion rights to energy policy and the climate transition.
Because the EU strives to create an “ever closer union,” this means that over time, more and more power is transferred from the member states to the EU apparatus. It should not surprise anyone that countries such as Poland and the Baltic states that in recent history have had to fight hard to gain their independence, are reluctant to cede independence to Brussels.
I am sympathetic to the Eastern states, and I do believe it would be possible to create a two-tiered European Union that may be able to accommodate eastern and northern member states who are less interested in European federalization than countries like Germany. As things stand, however, after the initial euphoria had dissipated, Ukraine being in the EU would cause political gridlock as the EU would attempt to force Ukraine to conform to its one-size-fits-all approach. Ukraine’s own internal divisions with its Russian-speaking minority would make the situation worse.
What then should be the path forward for Ukraine? Regardless of whether it joins the EU, whether now or later, it should be clear to everyone after the last two weeks that Ukraine’s place is with the West.
Ukraine already has a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, and thus the next logical step may be for the country to formally join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and/or the European Economic Area, though such a membership would have to exclude freedom of movement at least for the time being. Ukraine’s economy would receive a well-needed boost from being fully incorporated in the single market, without the risk of brain drain that freedom of movement would mean. Meanwhile, the European Union, its member states and in fact every country in the OECD should commit to providing the necessary humanitarian aid needed to rebuild Ukraine and aid those who have been forced to flee the country.