Ukraine’s long road to EU membership

di Young Think Tanker - 30 Settembre 2022

From Rome, Italy

The European choice 

On 28th of February 2022,  after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, President Zelensky submitted the official request for Kyiv’s membership to the European Union. Ukraine completed the first part of the questionnaire needed to acquire the status of candidate country at the record speed of ten days in April. The second part was finished in early May 2022. While a long standing goal of Ukrainian pro-European political elites, the decision to access formal membership in the EU was decidedly hastened by recent events. Vulnerability to the Russian threat  has renewed interest for being formally considered among Western countries, not only for Ukraine but also for Georgia and Moldova. Indeed, the latter two presented their own application for membership in early March, effectively putting in place their “Association Trio” aspirations. 

The purpose is to send a strong political signal to what is widely perceived to be Russia’s “imperialist” ambitions by associating with the West. After much buzz in the halls of power, on June 23rd, Ukraine and Moldova were awarded candidate status. Charles Michel, President of the Council, defined it as an “historic moment”. On the other hand, Georgia’s application was denied for now, to be presented again at a later time when more boxes have been checked. However, the result of the application was not foregone at all. European people have repeatedly shown their sympathy for Ukrainian struggles and for its inclusion in the EU. Nonetheless, the entire process towards membership is extremely long and complex. Furthermore, it touches deep-rooted issues both inside Ukraine and the EU, other than the broader geopolitical context 

 

The end of the “balancing act” 

In actuality, Ukrainian membership in the EU had been ventilated as an (admittedly long-term) hypothesis since 2000. At that time, 56% of the country’s population supported Ukraine’s entry. However, the same polls showed that another vast portion of the population was favourable to a to-be-defined kind of association with Russia and Belarus. As Minakov suggests, in the early 2000’s the uncertainty was coherent with Ukraine’s post-soviet foreign policy. That is, a balance between recovering-but-imposing neighbour Russia and the West, coupled with being constantly ambiguous regarding the direction of Ukraine’s strategic development. Several events in the last decade would go on to change that view. 

Starting in 2013, one of the defining events for the change of trajectory was Euromaidan. Pro-Europe mass protests erupted in November 2013, following the decision by the pro-Russian Yanukovych government to suspend negotiations for an Association Agreement with the EU. This eventually led to the “Revolution of Dignity” in February 2014, where the clashes between the protesters and Ukraine’s security forces culminated in Yanukovych‘s ousting. Soon after, two events marked a complete turn in Ukraine’s foreign policy. The Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula (February 2014) and the beginning of the Donbass war (April 2014) laid the foundations for Ukraine’s pro-Western stance. 


Not sleeping with the enemy anymore

Since 2014, the Russian Federation has increasingly been perceived as an existential threat to the Ukrainian state and to its territorial integrity. For this reason, the post-Maidan Ukrainian political establishment had already moved toward further integration with the EU. Since 2016, Kyiv has been part of the Deep Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU. Core elements include the abolition of import duties and the alignment of  Ukrainian technical regulations, procedures and measures with EU standards. Moreover, from September 2017, Ukraine is part of a complex association agreement (AA) with the EU. The agreement is very relevant, as it allows for goods originating in EU member states to be reprocessed in Ukraine and to be re-imported back in EU countries. 

AAs have always been the instrument of choice for the EU to project its influence. As Disney and Szyszczak argue, in this case, the main aim was not only to divert the trade towards the EU instead of Russia. Indeed, the EU had the objective to modernise its financial and political institutions while developing closer political ties with Kyiv, in light of a future rapprochement. Most importantly for this purpose, the AA has a political dimension, requiring regular summits. Frequent meetings were held at all levels, even between the European Parliament and the Verkhovna Rada. 

 

EU member states: friends or foes?

President von der Leyen, during a surprise visit to Kyiv on April 8th, declared that “Ukraine belongs in the European family”, showing support and confirming the EU’s commitment to answer to Ukraine’s bid for membership. While the support of EU institutions, particularly the Commission, was more or less clear, it is the endorsement of the other 27 member states that is and will be crucial going forward. The most welcoming support came from Poland, Romania and the Baltic States. Moreover, the leaders of Germany, France and Italy clearly endorsed Ukraine’s entrance in the EU during a visit to Kyiv in mid-June. While an unanimous agreement on Ukraine’s admission as a candidate was effectively found, some countries are still sceptical.

Most of them agree on the principle that Ukraine should join the bloc, but a great number is worried that the country won’t be able to meet the required standards for prospective EU member states. Namely, contested subjects are the establishment of a strong rule of law and of a democratic system, the creation of a structure of transparent governance and on economic reforms that would make Ukraine competitive on the EU market. Even supporters of Ukraine’s admission have shown their perplexity at Kyiv’s ability to carry out the necessary reforms to incorporate the acquis communautaire in their legislation. As a matter of fact, President Macron has stated that “it could [even] take decades for Ukraine to become an EU member”. 

 

EU candidature: the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end? 

The speedily admission of Ukraine was a huge political win for Zelensky and his government, who had intensely lobbied institutions and member states alike in Bruxelles, in the months following the Russian invasion of the country. The immediate effect was to deliver a powerful political message to Russia, stating the EU won’t be intimidated by Moscow’s aggression. However, for Ukraine, it is definitely only the beginning – just the first of many steps. Indeed, becoming a prospective candidate just kicks off the procedure for formal membership, and the long journey ahead to align Ukraine’s legislation with EU standards on a wide range of topics. The accession process is outlined by art. 49 TEU and an official EU document details the succession of the nine policy and administrative steps necessary. If successful, the procedure has its conclusion in the signature of the Accession Treaty between the EU27 and the candidate country. 

Arguably, the most time-consuming step is negotiations, which are divided in clusters for different policy areas. After putting in place the required measures, the candidate needs the approval of all member states before closing each chapter. Plus, a final green light is needed to finally become an official member state of the European Union. 

 

“Long way ahead” 

The admission process is long and arduous, as prospective members enter talks that usually last years with no guarantee of success. There is no fixed timeline, it all comes down to how much the legislation of the country is already lined up with the EU, how quickly the negotiations start and how smooth they are. Among the fastest entrances are Sweden and Finland, who took around three years starting from the submission of the application. On the other hand, some of the most recent members (such as Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia), took more than ten years to become part of the bloc. Plus, the system is “dynamic” – meaning that a country can backslide in its application, as in Turkey’s case. 

This can very well be attested by the current membership candidates: Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. Turkey became a candidate in 1999 and began talks in 2005, although its bid has been stalled in the last decade given Erdogan’s authoritarian turn. Montenegro and Serbia have been negotiating since 2012 and 2014, but a conclusion is far in sight. North Macedonia and Albania accessed candidate status in 2005 and in 2012 respectively. The European Council gave its approval in 2020, but talks have yet to start due to a dispute between North Macedonia and Bulgaria (member of EU since 2007). As it can be seen, some of these countries have been in talks for over a decade, but are not even close to becoming members of the EU. 

 

The state of the art: Ukraine’s current situation

Clearly, Ukraine’s situation is fairly unique. No country had ever accessed candidate status in the midst of a full scale war, which poses exceptional technical and political challenges. However, it is not the only country that would be admitted with occupied territory, as Cyprus was part of the 2007 enlargement. Both Ukraine and the EU acknowledge that an enormous effort will be needed for Kyiv to become a member of the EU, and that serious talks will certainly be put-off until peacetime. Reforms undertaken in the post-Euromaidan period and Ukraine’s participation in the Eastern Partnership (EaP) since 2009 have, according to the Commission, led to Ukraine effectively implementing around 70% of the regulations needed. However, much work is ahead. 

Of course, the EU will need to have a huge weight in reconstruction (particularly of infrastructures) which could help fasten the process. Moreover, the ultimate goal of admission could be a catalyst for much needed domestic reforms, including the reduction of endemic corruption. The aim would be to tackle structural problems that had affected Ukraine with the financial and technical help of the Commission. 

For now, aside from the immediate needs (namely, military and financial aid, plus humanitarian assistance) the EU has taken further action in increasingly integrating Ukraine. First of all, electronic grids from Ukraine and Moldova have been synchronised with the Continental European Grid to maintain their electricity systems stable. Moreover, EU member states granted temporary protection status to Ukrainian refugees, allowing them to immediately be able to live, work and move on EU territory. Last but not least, the EU27 have approved a regulation granting Ukraine duty-free and quota-free access to the European market for a year. An emergency situation, without doubt, but seemingly like a promise for what is to come. 

 

“Old problems, new and complex challenges”

Regarding the EU, the slowness of the admission process is not entirely exhaustible with the explanation of the lack of ability of countries to adapt to EU standards. Politics, but more specifically political will, is involved, too. It is no secret that, since the 2004 and 2007 enlargement, which doubled the number of member countries in the EU, the Union has been suffering from “enlargement fatigue”. The fear of losing the core EU values along the road, after a geopolitically-motivated inclusion (more than half of the newly member countries were part of the Soviet bloc) led to hesitancy and to the stalling of negotiations with later prospective members. Often because, even though some countries did attain the requirements on paper, they did not in practice and the admission was not the impetus for change that it was expected to be. 

The French-sponsored argument of “deepening before widening”, referring to the need to increase cohesiveness through reforms of the EU system before admitting new members, did catch on with other members. Particularly, in light of the fact that the widening, as it is almost always the case, caused the emergence of several conflicting interests between member states. The EU-27 have been progressively more and more divided in blocs on specific dossiers, inevitably creating a growing difficulty in carrying out swift decision-making. Over the years, this has resulted in an almost paralysis in the Council, where decisions are consensus-based and it suffices only one veto to stop the proposal from going forward. A clear example of that was the Hungarian veto on the sanctions on Russian oil in May 2022. For this reason, coupled with Ukraine’s current situation, the technical side of Kyiv’s membership is met with mixed opinions. 

 

“Looking West, Looking East”

For the Ukrainian government, undoubtedly, military aid and security are prominent and pressing needs. However, since membership in NATO is still a far-off dream, Ukraine’s candidate status has a double symbolic meaning. It aims at strengthening the security of Ukraine (and of Moldova) against Russian aggression, positioning them safely in the Western bloc. At the same time, it offers an outlook for Ukrainians to continue fighting not only for the independence of their country but also for their future as a member of the EU.  It provides a lifeline, in the view of the Ukrainian people, as they have “paid for their membership with blood”, which needs not to be underestimated. 

On the other hand, for the EU it generates and resurfaces a myriad of issues. The unity the EU27 have displayed during the crises is welcomed but needs to be harvested and cultivated. Enlargement is seen, again, by some states, as a geopolitical tool – also defined as an “imperative – against the Russian Federation, distancing themselves from a traditional “not poking the bear” strategy. But, technicalities regarding Ukrainian and Moldavian integration aside, it will also bring up the need for the EU to revise its Eastern Neighbourhood policy. As a matter of fact, the Eastern Partnership has been used, during the 2010s, to maintain influence in the Western Balkans while permanently denying them full membership. It is paramount that the EU devises a more comprehensive strategy for the integration of these countries in the EU system, as they could become resentful for having been bumped down after a decade of assurances. 

 

Conclusion

In July 2022, the EU granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. However, unresolved issues on both sides remain present. EU member states have manifested their perplexity regarding Ukraine’s ability to abide by the strict rules, involving several domains of the country’s life, to become a EU member state. On the other hand, the EU itself has been struggling with enlargement fatigue and dealing with the trade off between deepening and widening, as much as with much-needed internal reform that would guarantee a more swift decision process. Moreover, and most importantly, officially becoming a candidate for EU membership sends a strong political signal to the Russian Federation and boosts morale in war-stricken Ukraine. Nevertheless, currently there is no guarantee that the process will either be quick or that it will be eventually completed. Going forward, complexity is only destined to increase with ramifications all over Europe.

 

Bibliography 

Emerson, M., Blockmans, S., Movchan, V. and Remizov, A. (2022). Opinion on Ukraine’s application for membership of the European Union – CEPS Policy Insights. [online] Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS), pp.1–16. Available at: https://www.ceps.eu/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/PI2022-16-Ukraines-EU-membership.pdf [Accessed 14 Jul. 2022].

Autore dell’articolo*: Emma Visentin, esperta di geopolitica. Laureata in Scienze Politiche e in International Security Studies. Studentessa del Master di II Livello in Geopolitica e Sicurezza Globale all’Università “La Sapienza” di Roma. 

***

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