At long last, it finally happened. The European Union (EU), in a show of continued unity in aiding Ukraine in its fight against Russia, agreed to offer Ukraine candidacy into the bloc. In what the European Commission’s President touted as a “defining moment and a very good day for Europe,” the EU finally granted Ukraine something it has long coveted – a chance at EU membership.
At Long Last
Ukraine applied for EU membership not even a week after Russia invaded in late February. The decision to offer Ukraine candidate status happened at a much quicker pace than most observers would guess. Just two weeks ago, the leaders of France, Germany, and Italy – arguably the bloc’s most powerful countries – traveled to Ukraine to show European solidarity with the war-torn country. Then, the next day, the Commission recommended candidate status and, by the beginning of the next week, EU diplomats were calling it an almost certain reality.
The significance of the candidacy cannot be understated, especially for Ukraine, who has sought to join the EU for decades. As part of its justification for invading its neighbor, Russia claims that Ukraine is not a real country, aiming to bring it back into Moscow’s sphere of influence by force. In fact, Ukraine’s wish for closer ties with the EU prompted Russia to annex Crimea and foment a separatist insurgency in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine in 2014 after Ukraine’s then president was set to sign a trade deal with the EU.
As a result of Russia’s aggression nearly a decade ago and just a few months ago, the EU sends a strong signal to both Ukraine and Russia that the EU has Ukraine’s back by granting candidate status.
Not Just Ukraine
Ukraine was not the only Eastern European country granted membership status with the EU on Thursday. The EU extended the exalted status to Moldova, also a former Soviet republic, as well. Much like Ukraine, Moldova’s government is mired in corruption and heavily influenced by powerful oligarchs. The tiny, landlocked country – also similar Ukraine – often remains in limbo between a desire in joining Western institutions like the EU and NATO and its Russian neighbor. To Moldova, joining the EU would help solidify Moldova’s future.
Joining the EU is Not as Easy As It Seems
Joining the EU can be an arduous process as it is. To become an EU member, a country must meet a host of economic and political conditions. Initially, the European Commission makes an assessment to determine if a country is eligible, taking into account whether the country is a stable democracy, respects human rights, and a free market economy.
Then, if the Commission determines the country meets the requirements, all existing EU members must agree before a new country becomes a candidate. If that happens, the membership hopeful country adopts EU laws and regulations, which may take several years. Lastly, the country then signs a treaty that all 27 EU member countries must ratify. However, EU membership can take several years.
Another challenge to joining the EU centers on the member countries’ lack of enthusiasm for expansion. Interestingly, the EU’s rapid agreement to offer Ukraine candidacy status in the bloc runs counter to its traditionally slow approach to expanding.
One example of this slow approach to expanding is Turkish accession into the bloc. Turkey, which applied for membership in 1987, remains a candidate for membership. After receiving candidate status in 1999, it wasn’t until 2005 that the EU officially started membership talks. Since 2016, the EU and Turkey find themselves at an impasse due to the Turkish president’s autocratic turn in the last few years as well as concerns over human rights, sheer population, and demographic composition.
Western Balkan Balking
Similar to Turkey’s struggles to join the EU, several Western Balkan countries are in ongoing membership talks with the EU. Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania, and Bosnia – all of which gained independence after the former Yugoslavia dissolved in the early 1990s – will rightly be angry over how quickly the EU offered Ukraine membership after enduring years of long delays over their membership hopes. Such a rapid offering of candidacy to Ukraine and Moldova comes as a bit of opprobrium for the Western Balkan countries.
This May Not Bode Well for Ukraine or Moldova
The long delays in Turkey and the Western Balkan countries’ membership talks may not bode well for Ukraine. Of course, candidate status does not automatically indicate actual membership. Beyond the struggles Turkey and the Western Balkan nations have faced, Ukraine is likely in for a long, hard road ahead in joining the EU.
When announcing Ukraine’s candidate status, the European Commission also outlined six steps Ukraine must meet before accession talks move forward, including limiting the influence of oligarchs which have a long history of influencing Ukrainian politics and addressing the government corruption that often runs rampant.
Even if Ukraine is willing to make the reforms needed to join the EU, the country will likely run into challenges in implementing those reforms due to Russia’s presence in the country. As the fighting rages in the eastern part of the country, Ukrainian officials acknowledge that implementing reforms will prove difficult.
What About NATO?
While the EU has fulfilled one of Ukraine’s requests of Western institutions since the Russian war began in late February, this is likely to open discussion again on whether NATO should admit Ukraine as well. Russia has reacted to EU expansion as a similar threat to that of NATO. The benefits of joining the EU are primarily economic. So what about security? Once a country joins the EU officially, that country is covered by an EU treaty clause that says if “a member falls victim to armed aggression, the other EU countries are obligated to assist it by all the means in their power.”
However, the security dimension is what is missing in this scenario and that is why the debate turns to potential NATO membership. However, while Ukraine has long yearned to join the alliance, membership in NATO seems even more remote than Ukraine joining the EU. The question then becomes whether the possibility of joining the EU is enough For Ukraine, the possibility for EU membership may have to suffice in the face of Russia’s mounting war.