Ukraine’s Road to EU Membership

“Dear Volodymyr, my message today is clear: Ukraine belongs in the European family.” During a surprise visit to Kyiv on April 8, the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen confirmed Europe’s commitment to answer Ukraine’s call for joining the European Union. Just a few days after the beginning of the Russian invasion, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky officially submitted a request to gain EU membership. “We ask the European Union for Ukraine’s immediate accession,” the Ukrainian leader underlined, as the fighting with Russian troops was still ongoing near Kyiv.

Europeans have responded promptly by launching the initial steps of the enlargement process. The European Commission is expected to deliver its opinion on Ukraine’s bid in the coming weeks, opening the way for a possible decision by EU leaders to grant the candidate status at their June 23–24 summit. While these decisions have been taken at an unprecedented rate, the road to EU membership will be long. Joining the European Union is not like joining NATO. It requires adopting and implementing the entire body of EU law and regulations, with tremendous domestic political and policy implications. In an address to the European Parliament, President Emmanuel Macron recently stressed that the process will “take several years, probably several decades” as Kyiv will have to undertake demanding reforms to meet EU criteria.

At any rate, the war in Ukraine has shaken up the European Union’s approach to enlargement. Long seen as a purely technical process, the EU enlargement policy is now recognized as a geopolitical tool which will require a more strategic approach. Ukraine’s swift application to join the bloc has also rejuvenated the aspirations of other countries; Moldova and Georgia followed suit by submitting their own applications, while Western Balkans countries expect progress after years of stalemate. EU countries will face immense pressure to meet these renewed expectations while making clear that enlargement requires ambitious reforms to succeed—reforms by the candidate countries but also reforms of the European Union itself.

As Ukraine embarks in this long journey to Brussels, what is the process for joining the European Union, what are the pitfalls, and how can Europe overcome them?

Q1: What is the process for joining the European Union?

A1: It is up to individual countries whether and when to apply for membership in the European Union. The eligibility criteria set by the EU treaties are simple. According to Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union, “any European State which respects the values referred to in Article 2 and is committed to promoting them may apply to become a member of the Union.” These values include freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.

Once a country decides to apply, the accession process requires several steps, which can be broken down into three phases:

  1. Candidate status: The aspirant country needs to formally submit an application to the council. A unanimous vote of the council is then needed to move forward and ask an opinion from the European Commission. At the time of writing, Ukraine is at this stage of the process. On the basis of the European Commission’s opinion, the council and the European Parliament vote to officially accept the application. There are currently five candidate countries: Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey.
  1. Negotiations: The negotiation phase is without doubt the most challenging phase. The European Commission is responsible for negotiating on the basis of a framework agreed by all member states. In broad strokes, the candidate country must meet three conditions, also known as the “Copenhagen criteria”: having stable and democratic institutions, being a functioning market economy, and implementing the European Union’s legislative corpus (the “acquis,” in EU parlance).

To monitor the effective implementation of more than 60 years of EU policies and laws, the negotiation is divided into more than 30 chapters, which include areas like transport policy, taxation, financial services, agriculture, or public procurement, to name a few. Financial and technical assistance is provided to help candidate countries in this process. The council decides by unanimity to close a chapter once it is assessed by the commission that sufficient progress has been made by the candidate country.

  1. Ratification: Once all negotiation chapters are closed, a treaty of accession is submitted to the council. The council needs to approve it unanimously followed by the European Parliament with an absolute majority. The treaty is then ratified by all 27 member states according to their own domestic procedures.

The European Union has experienced seven waves of enlargement so far, in 1973 (Denmark, Ireland, United Kingdom), 1981 (Greece), 1986 (Spain, Portugal), 1995 (Austria, Finland, Sweden), 2004 (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia), 2007 (Bulgaria, Romania), and 2013 (Croatia).

Q2: How does this process translate into practice?

A2: The European Union's enlargement policy is often criticized for being overly technocratic—as exemplified by the numerous negotiation chapters—and rigid—mainly because of the council’s unanimous votes required at every step of the process. Every negotiation is presently stalled signaling a form of “enlargement fatigue.” A vicious cycle has formed. Candidate countries increasingly doubt the European Union will accept them as members. This saps political momentum within candidate countries to push for politically difficult domestic reform. This lack of progress makes the European Union see little prospect for enlargement.

While Turkey applied to join in 1987, accession negotiations with Ankara were effectively frozen in 2018 in response to growing democratic backsliding. Candidate countries in the Western Balkans are making little progress on the reform front, some of them facing acute political crises, as witnessed in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Montenegro. The normalization of the relations between Kosovo and Serbia remains a distant goal. North Macedonia’s and Albania’s accession process remains the most promising in this context, but is currently blocked because of a longstanding bilateral dispute between North Macedonia and Bulgaria over history-related issues.

Against this backdrop, EU countries have agreed in 2020 on a new methodology to make the enlargement process more credible and dynamic. Negotiating chapters are now organized in thematic clusters to simplify the process. Direct involvement of member states has been stepped up to sustain the political momentum over the negotiations. The reform also introduces a mixture of incentives and disincentives to encourage true reforms in the candidate countries.

EU leaders are also trying to speed up the European integration of Western Balkans as the context of the war in Ukraine has revived the vulnerabilities of the region. Known for their past hesitance, Paris and Berlin have recently sent strong signals on this issue. As chair of the Council of the European Union, France will host a conference next June with the aim of clarifying the European perspectives of the Balkans, reinvesting in the region and defining a true common ambition for the decades to come, as explained by the French president.

Q3: What are the prospects for Ukraine joining the European Union?

A3: Over the past few weeks, Ukraine has successfully passed the first steps of the accession process in record time: on February 28, Ukraine submitted its application; on March 7, the council voted to move forward and asked the commission to provide its opinion; on April 18, Ukraine provided detailed information to inform the commission’s evaluation; and by the end of May, the commission should be in a position to deliver its opinion. Steps that usually take months or even years have been taken in just a few days or weeks for Ukraine.

The goal is clear: to send a strong political signal to the Ukrainian authorities and people as they fight for the values and ideals which underpin the European Union. Europeans still remember that the Maidan protests in 2013-2014 were triggered after President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Ukraine’s EU aspirations are deeply rooted, with now more than 86 percent of Ukrainians supporting EU membership. In eastern Ukraine, a recent poll showed that more than two-thirds of respondents were in favor of joining the EU, against 31 percent in March 2021. This represents a huge shift which underscores the national consensus for EU membership. Among EU countries, there seems to be a consensus on this issue. Even Hungary has openly supported Ukraine’s bid, despite tense bilateral relations.

While there is little doubt that EU leaders will soon grant a candidate status to Ukraine, potentially at their 23–24 summit, the road to membership will inevitably be long. Even the shortest accession process took between three and almost five years in the case of Austria, Finland, and Sweden in 1995. As for the 2004–2007 wave of enlargement to Eastern European countries, the negotiations lasted over 10 years.

There is also a sense that the European Union may have moved too expeditiously in the past. It let some countries in despite deep-seated corruption issues and ratified Cyprus’s membership before it successfully completed a peace agreement. The European Union optimistically thought membership would be a catalyst for progress—instead, once in the union, the political incentive to push for difficult reforms and compromises evaporated.

Admittedly, Ukraine does not have to start from scratch. In 2014, the European Union and Ukraine signed an association agreement, which led Kyiv to start the legislative alignment process in various domains, from free trade to the rule of law to consumer protection. Ukrainian authorities recently declared that 63 percent of the agreement has already been implemented. Yet, Ukraine has still a long way to go before fully meeting the European Union’s conditions. Rule of law remains fragile in Ukraine, with a lack of transparency in the procurement system and a weak court system. In that regard, Europeans should not compromise on the Copenhagen criteria; on the contrary, they should use this process as a driver for change for the benefit of Ukraine.

Q4: Is the European Union in a position to welcome any new member?

A4: Another consideration which is often missed in the discussion on the European Union’s enlargement policy is the actual capacity of the European Union to “absorb” a new member. As underlined by EU leaders after a EU-Western Balkans summit in 2021, the European Union also need to “maintain and deepen its own development, ensuring its capacity to integrate new members.”

Adding additional EU members without reforming the internal structure of the European Union, especially the unanimity principle for key decisions, could make the European Union increasingly unworkable. It is hard enough to reach agreement with 27 countries, as currently witnessed by Hungary’s veto over new EU sanctions against Russian oil. The political momentum and urgency created by Ukraine’s bid should be seized by EU leaders to agree on bold institutional reforms to make the European Union more agile and flexible.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi and President Macron have recently put EU reform back on the agenda. The Italian prime minister called for moving “beyond the principle of unanimity,” which is currently the rule for issues like foreign policy, defense, health, or taxation. The French president supported the same idea and also pushed for a multi-tier Europe, with “avant-garde circles” deepening European integration in certain areas. President Macron even alluded to a reform of EU treaties, a prospect which has nonetheless raised concerns among some member states.

Q5: What can the European Union do in the short term to further integrate Ukraine?

A5: As Ukraine’s accession to the European Union will not occur overnight, EU countries should think of the ways to deepen Ukraine’s European integration in the meantime. In addition to its immediate assistance to Kyiv (military aid, humanitarian support, macro-financial assistance), the European Union has already taken important steps to further integrate Ukraine.

On the energy front, the electric grids of Ukraine and Moldova have been synchronized with the Continental European Grid to help them keep their electricity systems stable. EU countries also agreed to grant newly arrived Ukrainians with a temporary protection status, giving them instant rights to move, live, and work within the bloc. The European Union has also decided to support Ukrainian students through its program, Erasmus+. EU member states are now working on a regulation granting Ukraine duty-free and quota-free access to the European market for one year.

Once the war is over, the European Union will also have to significantly step up its support to help Ukraine rebuild and adapt its infrastructures (notably to better integrate them to the European Union ones, using European standards) but also undertake much-needed domestic reforms. The accession process could serve as a catalyst for bold reforms, with the financial and technical assistance of the European Union. The European Commission has already proposed the creation of a coordination platform and of a financial facility to help Ukraine in its future reconstruction efforts.

In order to manage expectations, as this process will certainly be long, greater political association of Ukraine could be envisioned. President Macron recently proposed the creation of a “political community,” which would include EU and non-EU countries sharing the same values, and the desire to foster their cooperation on security, energy, transport, investment, or education. Such a “community” would not be a substitute to EU membership (or a halfway house policy) but a way to shape the relations between the European Union and Ukraine in parallel of the accession process.

Ukraine’s road to the European Union will require both audacity and patience. EU countries will need to take bold decisions to send a strong political signal to Kyiv while keeping the long view in mind, as the accession process will demand challenging reforms on both sides.

Pierre Morcos is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Pierre Morcos