Ukraine Could Become an EU Member. What Would That Mean?

In Brief

Ukraine Could Become an EU Member. What Would That Mean?

Ukraine’s first steps toward eventual EU membership are the start of a long process that has raised the stakes in the country’s war with Russia.

On February 28, 2022, four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy requested his country’s immediate admission to the European Union (EU). The European Commission responded by recommending Ukraine be elevated to candidate status (along with Moldova), and in June, the twenty-seven EU leaders unanimously approved that recommendation. While the path to full membership is likely to be long and arduous, gaining candidacy has clarified the stakes of the conflict for the Ukrainian people.

What does EU candidate status mean?

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Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there were five EU candidate countries: Turkey (since 1999), North Macedonia (since 2005), Montenegro (since 2010), Serbia (since 2012), and Albania (since 2014). In theory, any candidate can immediately start formal accession negotiations; in practice, there is no guarantee that will happen quickly. In the case of Turkey, for example, negotiations only started in 2005, and talks have since been frozen. Additionally,  EU leaders have yet to give Albania and North Macedonia the green light to start formal accession negotiations. In short, being awarded EU candidacy is mostly a symbolic gesture.

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For Ukraine, a country fighting an existential war with Russia, the symbolism of having an EU future is important, but it could also create false expectations. Indeed, a recent poll showed that close to 70 percent of Ukrainians expect to join the EU within the next five years. Eight EU governments have supported Zelenskyy’s appeal for an expedited process, but unless the EU drastically rethinks its membership admission criteria, many in Ukraine are certain to be disappointed.

What reforms are required to qualify for membership?

Accession to the EU requires meeting the “Copenhagen criteria,” which are based on three pillars. One is political and includes respect for democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. A second is economic and requires the prospective member to have a functioning market economy. The third is administrative and institutional and entails the incorporation of the EU acquis communautaire, the body of common legal rights and obligations—about eighty thousand pages—that is binding for all EU member states.

For certain new members—such as Austria, Finland, and Sweden, all of which joined the EU in 1995—these criteria were relatively easy to fulfill. For others, especially countries with relatively young democracies and recent transitions from planned to market economies, the process can take years, if not decades. In the case of Ukraine, a period from ten to twenty years after the war ends would be realistic. It is also possible that the EU will change its membership criteria or include a new tier of EU “associated” countries—a status short of full membership—along the lines of what French President Emmanuel Macron has suggested with his idea for a “European Political Community.”

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Does Ukraine’s invitation complicate other accession efforts?

It could rankle some aspirant countries, especially in the Western Balkans. Bosnia and Herzegovina applied in 2016 but has yet to receive candidate status. Kosovo’s aspirations are complicated by the fact that it is not a member of the United Nations due to Russia’s veto on the Security Council. And earlier this month, the EU failed to launch accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia because of an ongoing veto against North Macedonia by EU member Bulgaria. (Albania is hostage to that veto as well, because the EU has linked both countries’ potential membership for the purpose of regional stability.)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meets with, from left, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi in Kyiv on June 16, 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meets with, from left, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi in Kyiv on June 16, 2022. Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

There is some unease due to the sense that Ukraine is leapfrogging over other countries that have a clear European future. At the same time, it is understood in most capitals that Kyiv’s road remains long and fraught, and that widespread feelings of solidarity with the Ukrainian people justify such a move. This is true in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, but also in countries such as France, which has long been more skeptical of EU enlargement. Ultimately, all twenty-seven EU leaders enthusiastically endorsed Ukraine’s candidacy.

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Is there any precedent for accepting a state with occupied territory?

The EU set a precedent for admitting a country with unsettled borders with Cyprus in May 2004. For decades, the island has been divided by Turkey’s occupation of northern Cyprus. At the insistence of Greece, Cyprus was included in the EU’s biggest wave of enlargement, which also included the three Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), the four Visegrád countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia), Malta, and Slovenia. EU-Turkey relations have been complicated by Brussels’ refusal to recognize the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, an impasse that Turkish accession to the EU was supposed to settle.

Thus, despite the possibility that Crimea and parts of Ukraine’s Donbas region could remain under Russian control for the foreseeable future, Ukraine’s contested borders should not be an impassible hurdle for Kyiv. There is one big difference with Cyprus, however, that makes Ukraine’s case harder: Turkey is an EU candidate country (at least on paper), while it is hard to imagine Russian President Vladimir Putin ever applying for EU candidate status.

How could Ukraine’s accession process influence the conflict with Russia?

It is hard to tell how Putin will react to future steps in the process. He has made clear in the past that his main opposition is to Ukraine’s aspirations for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) rather than in the EU. Similarly, he has no trouble with Finland’s or Sweden’s EU membership but sees their NATO applications as a provocation. That said, the 2014 Maidan Revolution was sparked by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych choosing closer economic ties with Russia over those with the EU. The overthrow of Yanukovych’s government in the spring of 2014 triggered Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its clandestine campaign of military support for pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s battle against Russian aggression is more likely to hinge on increased Western financial and military support, as well as continued tightening of anti-Russia sanctions. Still, EU candidate status does give the Ukrainian people a welcome morale boost, as they now know what they are fighting for: a free, democratic future in which they are more fully integrated with the West and a real prospect—however far in the future—of EU membership, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails.

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