Ukraine’s bid for EU membership is far from over — for now
European Union leaders said after a summit in Versailles last month that “Ukraine belongs to our European family”. It was a rather obvious observation from the 27 member states, given the popular outpouring in favor of Ukraine across the continent and their own supply of arms and sanctions to help it fight the Russia.
The prospect of EU membership could be key to an eventual peace process, giving kyiv and Volodymyr Zelensky a victory to offset any concessions to Moscow. But moving quickly from a poor cousin to a comfortable room in the EU mansion seems nearly impossible despite Ukraine’s worth in the Western cause.
Even becoming a candidate for membership seems like a long shot, though fresh outrage over apparent Russian atrocities in the village of Bucha could shorten the odds. “There is a huge difference between rhetoric and reality” about Ukraine, says Eion Dreia, senior fellow at the Martens Center for European Studies. “There is very little chance of having an accelerated accession process.”
Support for Ukraine’s EU membership was part of the broad peace architecture that Zelensky presented a few weeks ago, as a partial compensation for Kyiv’s acceptance of military neutrality. Its moral urgency meets one of the least urgent bureaucratic processes in the world. The EU took more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union to absorb the former Warsaw Pact and the Baltic States. (They joined in droves in 2004.) And that was during a more heady time in the end of history.
The last accession was in 2013, four million strong, in Croatia. Applications from Serbia and North Macedonia are blocked in the circular file. “There is enlargement fatigue in the EU and reform fatigue in the candidate countries,” says Marie-Eve Bélanger, researcher at the University of Geneva specializing in EU enlargement.
Ukraine, with a pre-war population of 44 million, suffered many additional strikes against it. It is a poor relation: the gross domestic product per capita is less than half that of the poorest current EU member, Bulgaria. Letting Kyiv cut the line in front of five existing candidates would be “terribly destabilizing in the Western Balkans”, Dreia said.
All the other Eastern European members joined NATO before the EU, observes Bélanger, outsourcing their security out of Brussels. It’s a card Zelensky says he’s willing to trade. “The first objective of enlargement was stability,” she says. Not what Ukraine has to offer right now.
Zelensky and his government also seemed less heroic in the eyes of pre-war European leaders. “There were concerns that they weren’t dealing with long-standing corruption issues quickly enough,” says Dreia. Ukraine ranked 122nd in last year’s NGO Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, slightly better than Russia at 136th.
None of this means that the EU’s pro-Ukrainian rhetoric is meaningless. A so-called Association Agreement signed between Kyiv and Brussels in 2017 yielded 20 billion euros ($21.8 billion) in aid and soft loans, estimates Richard Youngs, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe . (This pact spurred the Maidan Revolution and the first Russian invasions of Ukraine in 2014.)
The EU’s Eastern Partnership, which also includes ex-Soviet neighbors Georgia and Moldova, channeled even more money. Easing visa requirements has enabled millions of Ukrainians to work in the EU.
The war and alleged war crimes have raised a clamor to do more, which divides the EU along fairly predictable lines. Former Soviet satellites, led by Poland, are pushing for Ukraine to become a candidate. Germany, France and the Netherlands are braking.
“It will take months, if not years, before we get anywhere,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said after the Versailles conclave.
Images of Bucha could accelerate this timetable, while leaving the content of this “anything” ambiguous. The Versailles summit tasked the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body, with a recommendation on the EU’s next step vis-à-vis Kyiv. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is a personal enthusiast. “Ukraine is one of us and we want it in the European Union,” she said shortly after the February 24 Russian invasion.
The formal judgment of the EC will be more judicious, however, predicts Youngs. “They won’t grant him full candidate status, but potential candidate status,” he said. “Then they will act to slow down the whole process.”
Ukraine can look to Turkey to judge how slow it can be. The country has been an EU candidate since 1987, and theoretically in accession talks since 2005.
The way Eurocrats chew a sentence in Brussels may seem trivial as war rages on and corpses pile up. This is not the case. At the heart of this conflict, which has been germinating at least since Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, is the Ukrainians’ desire to have a future with the rest of Europe, while Vladimir Putin dreams of keeping them in his “world Russian”. Desperate to achieve his goal through “hybrid” persuasion or sabotage, Putin ultimately opted for brute force.
The response from the rest of Europe is therefore essential. Ukrainians should rejoice in the spontaneous outburst of solidarity, despite Zelensky’s constant pleas for ever more Western support. “Token gestures aren’t as good as formal gestures, but they’re not nothing,” says Bélanger.
Going forward, Ukrainians should feel they have gained something for their courage and sacrifice, not to mention NATO and de facto recognition of the loss of territories seized by Russia eight years ago. It is largely up to the EU to do so.
“The EU and its member states will continue to provide coordinated political, financial, material and humanitarian support” to Ukraine, reads the final communiqué from Versailles.
It all depends on how they gave flesh to those admirable bones.
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