Has Ukraine Saved European Union Democracy?

A metal sculpture of a woman looking up at the flag of Ukraine
Ukrainian flag on Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) / Photo by SerenityRose / Flickr

In November 2013 Ukrainian citizens took to the streets when their government suspended plans to sign an association agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties to Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. The movement gained momentum, and the repressive response resulted in more than one hundred deaths and thousands of injuries. The political mobilization of Ukrainians was a call to establish rule of law and represented an emergence of civil society and civic solidarity described by many observers as a national awakening. George Grabowicz, professor of Ukrainian literature and member of the executive committee of Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute, argues that the Maidan Uprising—named after Kyiv’s central square—“provides a kind of closure to the complex and drawn-out process of Ukrainian nation-formation that began in the nineteenth century.”[i]

The Maidan Uprising was, in one sense, a call from the people of Ukraine to launch the country into the gravitational pull of the European Union and its powers of social and economic transformation. While Ukraine entered the EU’s orbit, that transformation was both incomplete and interrupted by a succession of events, from the Russian annexation of Crimea to the Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine, to the EU’s own internal struggles with financial crisis, democracy, and the Covid pandemic. Nearly a decade later, on February 28, 2022, Ukraine submitted its application for EU membership as it faced a war for national survival, independence, and freedom in the face of invading Russian forces. Ironically, the moment ushered in a Ukrainian transformation of the European Union as much as an EU-induced transformation of Ukraine. Most crucially, the stark choice between freedom and autocracy laid bare by Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the example of Ukraine’s dogged fight for freedom and democracy may have unblocked the EU’s own internal struggle to protect democracy within its ranks.

The stark choice between freedom and autocracy laid bare by Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the example of Ukraine’s dogged fight for freedom and democracy may have unblocked the EU’s own internal struggle to protect democracy within its ranks.

Russia’s all-out assault on the independent existence of Ukraine began just days prior to Ukraine’s submission of its formal application for EU membership. The Ukrainian response catalyzed EU action in ways and at a speed that were to this point unimaginable in a European Union known for acting at a deliberate pace. This transformation took place in three areas: military security, dependence on Russian oil and gas, and protection of democracy.

The departure in the realm of security has attracted perhaps the most attention from commentators because of the scope and rapidity of the shift in Germany’s posture, and the nearly universal approval with which it has been received both within Germany and by Germany’s EU partners. Germany, whose modest defense efforts reflected a post–World War II commitment to peace, diplomacy, and fiscal austerity, had for some time been met with ridicule at home and abroad as military equipment and capability grew increasingly threadbare. Ukraine’s plight, along with the brutality of the Russian assault on the Ukrainian populace, galvanized a response that the German chancellor described as a Zeitenwende, a historical departure or inflection point.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government abandoned foundational elements of German foreign and security policy, announcing sizeable investments in defense and the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine. Demonstrating the far-reaching reversal of perspective in Germany induced by Ukraine’s plight, Scholz’s speech addressing the policy shift received a standing ovation in the Bundestag. With the new policy direction charted, the list of weapons provided by Germany for Ukraine’s defense multiplied from light weapons to fighting vehicles, tanks, and artillery to modernized air-defense systems. Germany is not acting alone. Among others, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal, Czech Republic, Romania, and Slovenia are providing military assistance to Ukraine. Both Sweden and Finland have set aside their policies of neutrality to request NATO membership, and both are providing military equipment to Ukraine. With the support of two-thirds of the population in a swiftly organized referendum, Demark has moved to accede to the European Union’s Common Security and Defense Policy, from which it had previously opted out.

The second area of EU transformation—reducing imports of Russian oil and gas—has been more labored due to the high level of dependence of EU member states on Russian energy. About 60 percent of all EU energy is imported, with Russia by far the largest supplier of oil and gas. Aside from its efforts to expand renewable energy production, the EU had until the Ukraine war done relatively little to address long-standing concerns about dependence on oil and gas imports from Russia. Complicating efforts to agree to cut imports and reduce the nearly $400 billion transmitted annually to Russia for its oil and gas supplies to the EU, dependence is uneven across EU member states.[ii]

In another sharp policy reversal, Germany suspended approval of the operating license for the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline running beneath the Baltic Sea from Russia directly to Germany that was completed in 2021. Germany had proceeded with the Nord Stream 2 project in the face of criticism even after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, with construction starting in 2016. Additionally, the EU has agreed to an energy package that will accelerate enhancements to energy efficiency, advance renewable energy targets, and diversify energy sources.[iii] Germany and the Netherlands will speed up joint drilling in the North Sea in offshore areas near the Dutch–German border, and Germany will construct two new liquified natural gas terminals over the next three to four years. As part of a sixth package of sanctions on Russia, the heads of government of the member states announced on May 30, 2022, a phased ban on oil imported from Russia by sea.[iv]

The most crucial European Union transformational dynamic launched by the example of Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression has garnered the least attention: enhanced capacity to address the prolonged struggle with authoritarian drift in the EU’s midst. Governing parties in both Hungary and Poland have pursued paths to power that have violated the fundamental commitment to democracy and rule of law at the core of the EU’s identity. As enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.”[v]

The most crucial European Union transformational dynamic launched by the example of Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression has garnered the least attention: enhanced capacity to address the prolonged struggle with authoritarian drift in the EU’s midst.

The Hungarian and Polish governments have pursued right-wing populist paths to power. Governments in both countries have encroached politically on judicial independence. In Hungary, the government of Viktor Orbán has progressively hemmed in the space for civic organizations and dismantled media independence. These measures are reflected in the deterioration over the past decade of the political freedom score assigned to Hungary by Freedom House, a US-based nonprofit that has evaluated democracy in countries across the globe for eight decades. With a score of 69 out of 100—the mean for the remaining twenty-six EU members exceeds 91—Hungary is now the only country in the European Union rated as “partly free” rather than “free.”[vi]

The European Union treaties incorporate a mechanism for addressing departures from democracy and rule of law. Treaty Article 7 establishes a process that can ultimately lead to suspension of a member state’s voting rights in the council of national government ministers. In September 2018 the European Parliament triggered the Article 7 procedure for Hungary. In its resolution, the parliament enumerated extensive violations of democracy and rule of law;[vii] in December 2017, the European Commission triggered Article 7 for Poland. The initial stages of the Article 7 process involve dialogue between EU institutions and the offending government. However, advancing to suspension of voting rights requires unanimous support from all other member state governments. The design of Article 7 incorporates two fundamental failures of imagination. First, the process is structured to confront a single wayward country, suggesting the drafters did not anticipate the prospect of an authoritarian wave that could sweep up multiple EU member states. The cases of Hungary and Poland—and other EU member states in central and eastern Europe have been touched by the authoritarian trend—are dependent rather than independent, and each government has pledged to support the other to block unanimous agreement on suspension of voting rights and other sanctions.

The second failure in the design of Article 7 is the embedded assumption that the transition to democracy is unidirectional: once safely moored in the harbor of democracy, countries are unlikely to drift out to authoritarian seas. If they do, the Article 7 process can reverse the drift since, it is assumed, each government will wish to restore democracy and rule of law or can at least be convinced of the value of doing so by European Union partners. However, when establishing political control over government and society becomes a national project as it has for Orbán’s Fidesz Party in Hungary, there is no desire to return to the democratic fold. On the contrary, Orbán’s Christian nationalism is a deliberate choice, one he has pursued with vigor and domestic political success both by deploying substantial EU funds to strengthen his network of support and invoking the “globalism” and Western liberalism of the EU as a foil.

The second failure in the design of Article 7 is the embedded assumption that the transition to democracy is unidirectional: once safely moored in the harbor of democracy, countries are unlikely to drift out to authoritarian seas.

Despite the shared drift toward authoritarianism, the responses of the Hungarian and Polish governments to Russia’s assault on Ukraine’s independent existence have diverged sharply. In February 2022, as Russian troops massed along the border with Ukraine, Hungary sought an increase in Russian gas imports through pipelines that bypass Ukraine, expanding on a fifteen-year deal with Gazprom signed in September 2021. The May 2022 decision reached by EU leaders to ban imports of Russian oil had to finesse Hungary’s refusal to participate, accounting for the decision to ban oil imports by sea but not by pipeline. Orbán also has declined participation in efforts to assist Ukraine, blocking the transit of defensive weapons from other EU members through Hungary to western Ukraine. As with other policy measures, Orbán cites his obligation to put Hungary’s interests first.

The Polish government, in contrast, has become Ukraine’s chief advocate in Western institutions and has been vociferous in its condemnation of Russian aggression. The leader of Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party, Jarosław Kaczyński, long an Orbán ally, openly criticized the Hungarian leader for his failure to denounce the slaughter of civilians in Bucha by the Russian military and warned that the alliance between the two countries could be jeopardized by their conflicting perspectives on Russian aggression. While Hungary will continue to import oil from Russia via pipeline, Poland joined Germany in agreeing to ban pipeline imports by the end of 2022. Poland also has become a leading provider of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, accommodating more than three million Ukrainian refugees. The European Union institutions have taken notice, and the disparate responses of the Hungarian and Polish governments to the war in Ukraine create an opening for the EU to move against violations of its fundamental principles of democracy and rule of law.

After a stumbling initial response to the Covid pandemic, the European Union agreed on a project of loans and grants to member states focused on the green and digital economies. The 672.5 billion Recovery and Resilience Facility renewed the stalled momentum of European integration and broke new ground by raising funds mutually for pandemic recovery investment.

Seeking a way out of the Article 7 impasse after several failed tries, the EU agreed in late 2020 on a new Rule of Law (ROL) mechanism that empowers the institutions to withhold funding from member state governments tied explicitly to rule of law violations. Days prior to Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine, the European Court of Justice ruled against a legal challenge by the Hungarian and Polish governments to a threatened suspension of their recovery funding on ROL grounds. Up until the full invasion of Ukraine, that is, the Hungarian-Polish alliance against enforcement of democratic values held fast. However, two days following Orbán’s overwhelming April 2022 victory in a free but wholly unfair election, the EU announced that it would deploy its new ROL mechanism to withhold EU pandemic recovery funds from Hungary. Weeks later, the European Commission endorsed Poland’s plan for green and digital investments totaling €35 billion, following judicial reforms promised by the Polish government. The decoupling of the Hungarian and Polish governments deriving from their respective responses to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has cleared a path for the EU to meaningfully address violations of its most fundamental principles.

Observers now ask whether there is a moral obligation for the EU to grant membership to Ukraine.[viii] President Zelensky’s moving appeal for membership has been received with great warmth. The European Parliament responded to his March 1 address with a nonbinding resolution in support of Ukraine’s candidacy. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen pronounced that Ukraine is “one of us and we want them in the EU.” She reiterated the message in April in Kyiv, promising “Dear Volodymyr, my message today is clear: Ukraine belongs in the European family.” The presidents of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia responded immediately to Zelensky’s appeal with a call for the EU to grant candidate status to Ukraine, facilitating the opening of accession negotiations.

Observers now ask whether there is a moral obligation for the EU to grant membership to Ukraine.

In the closest historical parallel, the rhetoric of the then twelve members of the European Economic Community arguably obligated the EEC to extend membership as east central European societies toppled communist rule at the close of the 1980s.[ix] Nonetheless, while the broad support for its EU aspirations is heartfelt, Ukraine ultimately will have to follow the EU’s normal—and protracted—accession process. Bringing a country into the EU means importing the challenges facing that country as well. No countries have been added to the EU since Croatia’s 2013 accession, due largely to the struggles of the European Union to address its internal challenges, from eurozone stability to democracy and rule of law to the departure from solidarity displayed both in the refugee crisis and the early period of the pandemic.

In addition to a war of indefinite duration, Ukraine will face massive challenges of rebuilding. There is the danger that the vast inflow of funds which will accompany rebuilding will fuel corruption. Furthermore, candidate countries are expected to fully implement the “acquis”—the entire body of EU economic and political commitments and requisite institutional reforms—prior to membership. The examples of Romania and Bulgaria are telling in this regard. Institutional actors in the EU have expressed regret over the premature admission of both since problems of political corruption evident upon accession have persisted. Ironically, EU institutions have greater leverage to induce reforms when countries are striving for membership than they do once countries are inside the EU fold. Furthermore, it may be difficult for the EU to advance Ukraine’s membership while overlooking current candidate countries Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia (Turkey is also an official candidate, though accession talks are stalled). That Ukraine would become the fifth most populous EU member state (following Germany, France, Italy, and Spain) will also ensure an extended accession process, since it would wield considerable institutional power by virtue of its size.

Though Ukraine’s EU membership is likely years away, the European Union has pledged assistance with reconstruction and closer incorporation into its market. The EU also has moved swiftly to synchronize Ukraine’s energy grid with the Continental European Grid, stabilizing Ukraine’s electricity supply.

But even from outside the European Union, Ukraine has extended an enormous benefit to European Union democracy. This occurs at a historical moment when the commitment to democracy in the United States can no longer be taken as a given, placing a premium on democracy in the European Union. An EU that could once claim to wield transformative power over an aspiring member state has itself been transformed by the ardor and courage of the Ukrainian cause.

University of Oklahoma

Editorial note: For more on the 2013–2014 Maidan protests, see Yuri Andrukhovych’s “Protesting on the Square in Kiev: Some Literary Insights” and his open letter to the West as well as Michael M. Naydan’s “Hope Is the Meaning of the Maidan for Ukraine and the World.” Dr. Naydan’s Ukraine reading list appears elsewhere in the July 2022 issue of WLT, which spotlights the daily lives of poets, novelists, playwrights, artists, journalists, editors, photographers, translators, and culture workers in Kharkiv and Odesa since February 24.

[i] Professor Grabowicz is quoted in Mykhailo Minakov, “The Significance of Euromaidan for Ukraine and Europe,” Wilson Center Focus Ukraine blog, November 21, 2018.

[ii] European Commission, “From where do we import energy?” n.d.

[iv] European Council, “European Council conclusions on Ukraine, 30 May 2022,” press release.

[v] Consolidated version of the Treaty on European Union, Official Journal of the European Union C326/17, October 26, 2012.

[vi] Freedom House, “Hungary,” Freedom in the World 2022.

[vii] European Parliament, “European Parliament resolution of 12 September 2018 on a proposal calling on the Council to determine, pursuant to Article 7(1) of the Treaty on European Union, the existence of a clear risk of a serious breach by Hungary of the values on which the Union.” The parliament lists the following concerns as grounds for its resolution: “the functioning of the constitutional and electoral system, the independence of the judiciary and of other institutions, the rights of judges, corruption and conflicts of interest, privacy and data protection, freedom of expression, academic freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of association, the right to equal treatment, the rights of persons belonging to minorities, including Roma and Jews, and protection against hateful statements against such minorities, the fundamental rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, and economic and social rights.”

[viii] Steven Erlanger, “As Ukraine Fights, Does the E.U. Owe It Membership?New York Times, May 30, 2022.

[ix] See Frank Schimmelfennig, “The Community Trap: Liberal Norms, Rhetorical Action, and the Eastern Enlargement of the European Union,” International Organization 55, no. 1 (Winter 2001): 47–80.

Mitchell P. Smith is professor and associate dean for academic affairs in the University of Oklahoma's College of International Studies. He has been a European Union Fulbright Fellow in Belgium and a Jean Monnet Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He has authored, co-authored, or edited several books on the European Union and is completing a book about the deep perceptual divide in the United States and how it is damaging democracy. His essay “Soft Power Rising: Romantic Europe in the Service of Practical Europe” appeared in the January 2006 issue of WLT.