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Is Ukraine joining the EU really a good idea?

The Taoiseach, naturally enough, was full on in his support yesterday for future Ukrainian accession to the European Union. He told the European Parliament that Ukrainian Membership had Ireland’s “full support”, saying that “Ukraine’s cause must be the cause of every person who believes in free democracy. As the European Council said once again last week, Russia must end its slaughter and withdraw from the entire territory of Ukraine.”

The latter sentiment is hard to disagree with, as is the EU’s full-throated support for Ukrainian independence. The principle that larger countries can militarily annex smaller ones, or parts of smaller ones, at will, is not one that should be conceded. And handing Ukraine EU membership, effectively severing their fate from that of Russia forever, probably feels at this point like a measure of justice for the illegal and illegitimate Russian invasion. But that does not automatically make it wise.

Ukraine would, after all, immediately become one of the largest countries in the EU. It would, automatically, become the largest in terms of land area, and, when this war ends, probably the most powerful militarily, at least on land. It is very likely that however this war ends, it will end in a continued territorial dispute with Russia, at least over the question of Crimea, which the Russians illegally annexed in 2014. Its 40m citizens would immediately become EU citizens, likely with all the travel and citizenship rights of every other EU member state. A substantial westwards migration, at least in the early years, might be expected.

And then there’s the question of rebuilding: Russia, ultimately, will not pay the cost of the destruction it has wrought across Ukrainian territory. That will be a Ukrainian bill, supported, more or less, by western taxpayers. That “more or less” becomes “more” with Ukraine in the EU.

Nor, it should be remembered, is Ukraine a perfect democracy. Naturally enough, outrage at Russia has pushed Ukraine’s own human rights record to the back of most western minds, but the fact remains that even in peacetime, it was never a perfect EU candidate state. It has high levels of corruption, and the hostility between Ukraine and Russia has sometimes manifested as poor treatment of Russian speakers. Ukraine has not been admitted, or considered for membership, of the EU, up to now, at least in part for those reasons.

And then there is the question of Russia itself. Mr. Martin says Ireland is full throated in its support for Ukrainian EU membership, even as the EU moves forward with a common defence policy from which Ireland may very well excuse itself. So, consider then, what Mr. Martin is doing, as Irish Taoiseach: He’s supporting the idea of committing EU soldiers, if necessary, to die for the defence of Ukraine in future wars. Just not his own soldiers. It’s utterly remarkable – brazen even – when you think about it: We’re entirely in favour of a decision that might cost lives, so long as we’re allowed to opt out of the consequences of that decision. If they thought about it, EU leaders should really kick him from Brussels to Dublin in annoyance.

Chances are, ultimately, that Ukrainian Membership of the EU will remain one of those things that’s just around the corner, talked about a lot, but taking an inordinately long time to come to fruition. It certainly will not happen while the war endures, and when the war ends, it will take years before Ukraine is in a position to fulfil the usual requirements of a candidate state. So, the most likely explanation for this stuff is that it’s just blather: A way to signal that Mr. Martin and his EU colleagues are pro-Ukrainian without having to do anything urgent about it.

But blather has an unfortunate habit of gaining its own momentum, and the modern drift towards hysteria being what it is, there’s an unfortunate trend whereby if you express reservations about Ukrainian EU membership, you get painted as some class of pro-Russian stooge. But the bottom line should be this: Even if you ultimately favour Ukraine joining the EU, it should be because Ukrainian membership is good for the EU. Not because EU membership is good for Ukraine. After all, if we were just doing things because they are good for Ukraine, all these lads at the EU summit would already have armoured divisions on the ground in the Donbass.

And they don’t, do they?

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