European Union 2030: A Postwar Plan for Ukraine and Turkey

European Union 2030: A Postwar Plan for Ukraine and Turkey

To truly defeat Russian objectives, the European Union and the United States need to establish a stronger and much more audacious transatlantic agenda.

What should Ukraine’s long-term future relationship with Europe, and the West in general, look like if and when this terrible war can be brought to a close? It is not too soon to ask this question. Waiting for talks to begin would be imprudent, given the importance of the task. Indeed, planning for the post-World War II international order began well before 1945. This may not be World War II—but the Ukraine conflict is nonetheless a major event in European history. It behooves us to think big and think from first principles when considering how to help end it. 

A stable peace will require a fair deal that allows Ukraine to rebuild its nation with strong ties to the West and strengthen its economy even as it seeks to do so in a way that minimizes the likely Russian counterreaction. Thinking of Ukraine and Turkey together as new members of the European Union by 2030 provides the right strategic objective as we contemplate a new architecture for the region. These are the two largest countries of Europe’s eastern flank, besides Russia itself, and the two that are also most in flux geostrategically. Anchoring them into a broader European order will be important not only for their future security, but for the broader region’s stability as well—whether we think in terms of the West’s coherence and cohesion, or deterrence of Russia, or both. 

One element of such an approach clearly must involve security. As one of us has written elsewhere, a negotiated settlement to the current war requires enough reassurance and security enhancement for Ukraine that Russia will not wind up attacking again in a year or two or three. NATO membership for Ukraine, and binding security guarantees, seem implausible as part of any accord with Russia. But a strong NATO training presence in a future Ukraine, combined with the creation of a new Eurasian security structure that is distinct from NATO and stronger than the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, may provide the right formula. Ukraine would be a founding member of such a structure, along with many or most NATO members. A post-Vladimir Putin and reformed Russia could someday join as well.

However, it is not all about security, as important as that is. Ukraine’s broader place in Europe is crucial to consider, as well. The alternative to thinking about postwar dynamics now is to wait for military conditions to be ripe for political negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow to begin. This strategy of patience may prove too long, too risky, and too costly for all the parties involved, including Europe and the United States. While the West must continue to help Ukraine militarily and economically, it should also incentivize Kyiv to think about postwar stabilization, democracy, and prosperity. A clear path leading to Ukraine’s EU membership—with a generous financial package for postwar reconstruction—is a promising and realistic strategy for the West. 

But this long-term European strategic objective that includes Ukraine in the EU should not shut the door to Turkey. Europe must not turn into a Christian club that excludes a critically important Muslim country that applied to join the club long before Ukraine even emerged as an independent state in 1991. To be sure, Turkey’s autocratic path under Recep Tayyip Erdogan cannot and should not be rewarded. Instead, the EU must chart a course that incentivizes and rewards a post-Erdogan Turkish political context. This scenario may very well emerge after the Turkish elections scheduled for this summer. The recent devastating earthquake in the country has only sharpened the resolve of the Turkish opposition, who blames the Erdogan government for the slow rescue effort, inefficient post-disaster relief, and lax construction standards. According to most polls the opposition—a unified front of six political parties—has a reasonable chance to win. A combination of dismal economic conditions and Erdogan-fatigue among large segments of Turkey’s young and dynamic society is likely to turn a new page in Turkish politics after twenty years under the same ruler. Under a more democratic government and after having welcomed Sweden and Norway as new NATO members, a post-Erdogan Turkey will deserve a second chance with the EU. Given Turkey’s complex—and potentially helpful—role in the Ukraine crisis, this new page in Turkey-EU relations can also help Ankara escape Russia’s strategic and economic orbit. 

Ukraine gained candidate status in the EU shortly after the Russian invasion began. But candidacy is no guarantee for membership, as Turkey, another country that gained such status in 1999 and began accession negotiations in 2005, bitterly knows. Some may object that the EU cannot accept a state with occupied territory. In fact, the EU already has a member with unsettled borders: Cyprus. To Turkey’s dismay, Cyprus gained membership in the union despite voting against a United Nations-sponsored plan that would have united the island. 

Turkey’s own EU accession process is currently on hold for reasons largely related to its autocratic turn. But Cyprus and Greece are also serious impediments. An opposition victory against Erdogan in the upcoming elections could create a narrow window of opportunity on that front too. A recent document outlining the Turkish opposition’s strategic vision underlines the need for diplomatic engagement rather than saber-rattling with Greece. Reviving Ankara’s EU membership process in a post-Erdogan context would provide a rewarding boost to a new Turkish government that seeks diplomatic rather than militaristic solutions to deeply-rooted problems in the Aegean sea and Eastern Mediterranean. 

All this is easier said than done. With Brexit, the EU lost the country that was the most ardent supporter of enlargement. Washington also lost its most valued partner in the EU. In the absence of the United Kingdom, Washington needs to become the champion of EU enlargement. The case to be made to the EU’s Franco-German engine is a convincing one: a path for Ukraine and Turkey to join the club by 2030 will significantly improve peace and stability in Europe. The alternative will be a Ukraine in limbo and a frustrated Ankara continuing to move away from the transatlantic community. Yes, Turkey is already a NATO member, but a highly problematic one. Ankara has purchased missile defense systems from Russia and currently holds Finnish and Swedish membership to NATO hostage. The Biden administration should make the case that a more democratic Turkey after Erdogan will need a European perspective to stay the course. This positive trajectory change in Turkish foreign and domestic politics will certainly be a game-changer for Turkish-Russian relations. 

At the end of the day, only the EU can take decisions about its future. Declaring that EU membership for Ukraine could take “decades,” French president Emmanuel Macron has recently launched the “European Political Community”—a large and toothless initiative bringing together forty-two countries that includes Israel, Georgia, and Armenia. Ukraine and Turkey will need more than inclusion in a large and ineffective pan-European tent with no economic and political benefits. To truly defeat Russian objectives, the EU and the United States need to establish a stronger and much more audacious transatlantic agenda. Anchoring Ukraine and Turkey in the EU by the end of the decade should be at the heart of this strategic vision. 

Michael O’Hanlon holds the Philip Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy at The Brookings Institution and is author of Military History for the Modern Strategist: America’s Major Wars since 1861.

Omer Taspinar is professor at National Defense University and Johns Hopkins/SAIS.

Image: Salma Bashir Motiwala /