Security-driven EU-Ukraine relationships within and beyond the Eastern Neighbourhood Policy

Ukraine is ‘one of us and we want them in’, said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on 27 February 2022, in response to Ukraine’s bid for membership. In this post, Machiko Kanetake argues that the EU’s response regarding Ukraine’s accession should not reproduce a fundamental ambivalence underlying the EU’s relations with its eastern neighbourhood.

This post is the fifth and last in a series drawing on a RENFORCE expert seminar on the EU’s response to the war in Ukraine, held online on 8th March 2022. It follows analysis of the EU’s response to the migratory flow, the EU’s decision to provide weapons to Ukraine, the EU’s economic sanctions, and the role of social media in times of war.


On 17 April 2022, the Ukrainian government submitted its responses to a questionnaire to kick off the concrete steps towards the country’s accession to the EU. Despite the differences among EU Member States, Russia’s full-scale military invasion in Ukraine appears to have adjusted the EU’s narrative regarding Ukrainian accession. This is best captured by a remark by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on 27 February, who said that Ukraine is ‘one of us and we want them in’. In the light of the decades of relationships built without any prospect for membership, her brief utterance is no doubt significant.

The neighbourhood policy as a site of ambivalence

While the processes regarding the EU’s enlargement are inherently complex, it is important to understand and evaluate the EU’s future stance in light of the decades of ‘ambivalence’ which have characterised of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) of the EU with regard to its eastern neighbourhood. The ENP was formulated alongside the EU’s membership enlargement in 2004 and 2007. In essence, the enlargement created the political sentiment that the EU would have to respond to new ‘problems’ coming from its (new) eastern borders, in the sense that the EU would be proximate to transnational organised crimes and customs taxation fraud.

Such political sentiment is best captured by the British Foreign Secretary’s letter in January 2002, addressed to the President of the Council of the EU. According to the letter, to share borders with Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova was seen as bringing ‘all the attendant problems of cross-border crime, trafficking and illegal immigration’. What was envisaged in the letter was that the EU would build “a kind of ‘special neighbour status’” by offering ‘clear and practical incentives in return for progress’—without, however, the prospect of EU membership. As ‘a kind of special neighbour status’, the EU’s direction has situated its eastern neighbourhood neither fully ‘inside’ nor ‘outside’ in terms of their Europeanisation processes, as observed by Julien Jeandesboz.

Security threats to justify the ambivalent relations

In constructing ‘a kind of special neighbour status’, the EU referred to ‘security threats’ as one of the key justifications for establishing its unique relations with the new neighbourhood. For example, in March 2003, in the communication entitled ‘Wider Europe—Neighbourhood: A New Framework for Relations with our Eastern and Southern Neighbours’, the European Commission envisaged intensifying cooperation to ‘prevent and combat common security threats’. The Commission then proposed to prioritise cooperation, joint work, and assistance to ‘combat security threats such as terrorism, trans-national organised crime, customs and taxation fraud, nuclear and environmental hazards and communicable diseases’. In this sense, the EU’s ENP has long been criticised for being based on the ‘problematisation’ of neighbouring governments and populations.

Emphasis on ‘border management’

By emphasising the presence of security threats, the ENP situated itself, not only within the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and its external dimensions, but also in the development of the external dimension of an area of freedom, security and justice (AFSJ) concerning justice and home affairs. In the Communication in October 2005, the Commission stressed the need for improved law enforcement and judicial cooperation ‘both within the EU and externally’ and through ‘support for capacity-building in third countries’ (emphasis added). The ENP thus developed alongside the EU’s greater emphasis on the external dimension of the AFSJ.

With regard to Ukraine and Moldova, the connection between security threats and the external dimension of justice and home affairs has led the EU to put an emphasis on ‘border management’ as part of the implementation of the ENP. One of the most iconic initiatives in this regard is the EU’s Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM). It was established in 2005 with the aim of helping Moldova and Ukraine improve their capacity to prevent smuggling, trafficking, and customs fraud. EUBAM serves as a liaison between Ukrainian and Moldovan customs and security agencies on the one hand, and those of EU member states on the other hand.

A series of instruments to sustain a type of special neighbourhood status

While EUBAM has been explained as an ‘advisory technical body’, EUBAM’s role should be understood in combination with a series of other instruments that facilitate general legislative reforms. In fact, the security-driven narrative has been combined, rather paradoxically, with what Nikki Ikani described as ‘technocratic frames’ to pursue ‘socio-economic development and approximation to EU rules and standards through conditionality’. Within the framework of the ENP, a wide range of instruments have indeed been devised in connection to Ukraine. To kick off a new partnership between the EU and Ukraine, the EU-Ukraine Action Plan was published in 2005 to achieve the ‘legislative approximation’ by Ukraine ‘to meet EU norms and standards’, including those of customs management.

This was followed by, for instance, the EU-Ukraine Association Agenda of 2009, leading ultimately to the adoption of the 2014 Association Agreement, including the establishment of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). The Association Agreement came with the EU-Ukraine Association Agenda of 2015, which aimed to operationalise the Agreement by way of a long list of actions to be taken by the Ukrainian authorities. These initiatives were combined with the EU’s financial assistance to Ukraine to assist its efforts to approximate its economic and legal frameworks with those expected by the EU. As a reminder, these instruments, including the 2014 Association Agreement, were devised without the prospect of membership.

Time to revise the security-driven ambivalence

It remains to be seen how the process regarding accession moves forward regarding Ukraine (as well as Georgia and Moldova). The procedure provides that after the European Commission submits an opinion, EU Member States will decide whether to grant the country candidate status. As is widely reported, EU Member States remain divided; a coalition of Eastern European states are in favour of granting Ukraine an EU candidate status, while France, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands expressed caution and Austria’s foreign minister voiced his opposition to Ukraine’s candidacy.

While this blogpost cannot take into account a wide range of complex factors that would affect the accession processes, in the light of the way ENP has been developed, one cannot ignore the fact that EU-Ukraine relations continue to be dominated by the narrative of security threats—albeit those of a different nature and magnitude. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen characterised Russia’s aggression as a ‘direct threat to our security’. However, if the EU is to respond to the critiques levelled against the eastern neighbourhood policies, it should not rely on security narrative to perpetuate these ambivalent relationships.

As Richard Youngs has argued, association agreements and the DCFTA have been ‘good at transferring EU rules and regulations’ to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, but ‘bad at fomenting the kind of direct democratic and security agency’ that these countries need to build their political resilience. The EU’s technocratic approach underlying the ENP would look, Youngs observes, ‘decidedly incongruent in the post-invasion context’. What matters is to evaluate the EU’s future stance in the light of the EU’s eastern neighbourhood policies and their drawbacks. Without critical reflection on the past, the EU’s responses to Ukraine’s bid for membership run the risk of continuing the security-driven narrative which constructed a fundamental ambivalence in EU-Ukraine relations.


*This blog is in part based upon the following paper: M. Kanetake, ‘The EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood Policies in Combatting Illicit Tobacco Trade’, in S. Tosza & J.A.E. Vervaele (eds.), Combatting Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products: In Search of Optimal Enforcement (Springer, 2022), pp. 507-536.