EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian President Zelensky, 8 April 2022. Photo: Twitter / Ursula von der Leyen

Offer the four freedoms to the Balkans, Ukraine, and Moldova

For a merit-based EU accession process with a credible goal

To revive the EU accession process, the EU should offer membership in the Single Market, including the four freedoms, as a credible and reachable interim goal to Ukraine, Moldova, and any of the six Western Balkan nations interested in it.

ESI background: Scoreboard - The true state of accession - What the Commission assessments reveal (17 March 2023)

ESI newsletter: Elephants in Skopje – Balkan turtle race and Ukraine (15 July 2022)

ESI report: The Balkan Turtle Race – A warning for Ukraine (13 July 2022)

ESI newsletter: Europe, Ukraine and a second Treaty of Rome, 16 June 2022

Auf Deutsch: Die Ukraine, Europa und ein zweiter Vertrag von Rom

En español: Ucrania, Europa y un segundo Tratado de Roma

En français: L'Ukraine, l'Europe et un deuxième traité de Rome

In italiano: L'Ucraina, l'Europa e un secondo Trattato di Roma

New Europe Center: A win-win European vision for the EU – Candidate status and four freedoms for Ukraine, 13 June 2022

Istituto Affari Internazionali: Why Ukraine (and Moldova) Must Become EU Candidates, 8 June 2022

DGAP (Gerald Knaus): Action Plan for the Western Balkans and EU Neighborhood, September 2021

ESI report: Hamster in the Wheel. Credibility and EU Balkan policy, 15 January 2020


The challenges posed by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the Ukrainian application for EU membership require a strategic vision of Europe's future. It also requires restoring the credibility of the current accession process.

Some member states, led by Poland and the Baltics, urged the EU to welcome the Ukrainian application. Other member states insist that any response must not leave the Western Balkans behind. A third group warns that the EU would become dysfunctional by further enlargement before internal reform.

There is a way forward that addresses the concerns of all member states. It is to grant candidate status and to open accession talks now, and in addition to offer the following:

All candidate countries that meet the criteria to join the EU, including respect for human rights and the rule of law, should gain full access to the European Single Market and the four freedoms – the free movement of goods, people, services and capital. Citizens and businesses would then enjoy the same rights as those from EU members or Norway and Iceland enjoy today.

This offer should be made to Ukraine, Moldova and to any Balkan democracy that is interested. It creates an achievable goal. Between 2000 and 2002, it took Lithuania, Latvia and Slovakia 34 months to begin and complete their accession negotiations.

Admitting countries that meet the criteria, including the rule of law, to the Single Market does not complicate EU decision making. Joining the Single Market does not first require EU internal reform. Nor does it risk rendering the EU dysfunctional.

The instrument to achieve these ends already exists: it is the current pre-accession process. Every year the European Commission publishes reports on how far each Western Balkan candidate is from meeting EU standards and requirements for the Single Market – from environmental to competition policy – and on the rule of law. It should now do this also for Ukraine and Moldova.

However, once the Commission confirms that a candidate has met these conditions, the Council should offer full access to the Single Market and the four freedoms, and negotiate a treaty similar to the already-existing EU-Western Balkans Transport Community Treaty: a European Economic Community II (EEC), centered around the four freedoms as a framework.

This would be visionary and familiar. This is how Finland, Sweden and Austria joined first the Single Market in 1994 and then the EU in 1995. This was the vision of legendary Commission president Jacques Delors. In his inaugural speech to the European Parliament in January 1989 Delors posed the question how to "reconcile the successful integration of the Twelve without rebuffing those who are just as entitled to call themselves Europeans?" Delors was referring to Austria, Sweden, Norway and Finland. He then offered them a "more structured partnership with common decision-making and administrative institutions."

Three years later, on 2 May 1992, Austria, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden signed the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement. They became members of the Single Market on 1 January 1994. This two-step process was no detour. It made EU membership more likely.

Of course, Ukraine in 2022 is not Sweden or Austria in 1994. It is a country at war in a continent on edge, at the beginning of a new Cold War. But this makes a robust strategy for future European integration more, not less, urgent.

The present moment requires the bold realism of those who negotiated the Coal and Steel Community and the Treaty of Rome. Can Charles Michel be the Paul-Henri Spaak, Emanuel Macron the Robert Schuman, and Olaf Scholz the Konrad Adenauer of this generation?