BERLIN – It was as good a metaphor for the EU-Ukraine relationship as any: Volodymyr Zelensky’s apprehensive look towards the camera as Emmanuel Macron clasped him in a surprise hug. After the Ukrainian president’s country was invaded by Russia, he begged the West for help – with markedly different responses from different countries.
Zelensky has not hidden his frustration with his French counterpart’s repeated statements about the need not to “humiliate” Russia, and with Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, for dragging his feet in sending the heavy weaponry Kyiv says it needs as the artillery war in Ukraine grinds on in the east.
But on Thursday (16 June), Scholz and Macron, along with Mario Draghi, the Italian prime minister, and Klaus Iohannis, the Romanian president, said that they backed Ukraine’s application to become an official candidate for EU membership. Ukraine only applied on 28 February, four days after the Russian invasion; usually, the step of formally advancing to candidate status takes years but on Friday, the European Commission in turn backed the move. It is expected to be formalised at a European Council meeting next week.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said: “In the view of the commission, Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the country’s aspiration and determination to live up to European standards.” She praised Ukraine’s progress on anti-corruption and democratic reforms, though with the caveat that “this is of course on the understanding that the country will carry out a number of further reforms”. She endorsed a similar state for Moldova, but Georgia, another post-Soviet state, was told that further reforms were needed before it could progress.
“It’s a glimmer of hope for Ukraine in a future that is shrouded in doubt,” said Georgina Wright, director of the Europe programme at the Institut Montaigne public policy think tank. “But enlargement will always be incredibly complicated and there is no way you can fast-track it. There are just so many things that need to happen.”
Conditions on the rule of law and democratic reforms could be imposed before the EU opens accession negotiations with Ukraine. Once opened, accession negotiations will be structured in 35 chapters, covering various aspects of EU law, such as customs, the single market and the environment. While negotiations have been concluded in as little as two years in some cases, in others they have run for decades. Turkey was granted candidate status in 1999; negotiations stumbled on until 2018, when they were frozen by Brussels over the worsening conditions of democracy under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
EU leaders have repeatedly cautioned that it would take years or decades for Ukraine to join. They cite concerns about corruption, not to mention the war with Russia, which may last for months longer and the effects of which will be felt for decades.
The decision to offer Ukraine candidate status is nothing but symbolism while Kyiv continues to fight a war it warns it could still well lose. Yet it jars with Germany and France’s reluctance to provide Ukraine with heavy weapons on the same scale as the US and UK. A day before the French, Italian and German leaders visited Ukraine for the first time – months later than some of their other EU counterparts, including the Polish and Czech prime ministers – Joe Biden, the US president, announced an extra $1 billion in military aid to Ukraine. The EU leaders held back from pledging further aid to Ukraine, either military or financial.
“If Ukraine is granted candidate status,” Wright said, “they key question is what can we do in the meantime, between now and the moment they will eventually join the EU. How can Ukraine be given more participation in EU markets and greater political, financial and institutional support?” Much more pressingly, EU member states will need to step up military aid to Ukraine if it is to hold back – or even reverse – the Russian offensive in the Donbas.
One especially relevant unanswered question is how EU membership would affect Ukraine’s current and future conflict with Russia. Zelensky has suggested that Kyiv could abandon its aspirations to join Nato in exchange for yet-to-be-formulated security guarantees from other countries. Yet the EU’s treaties include a mutual defence clause, similar to Nato’s Article 5 mutual defence clause.
On paper, once Ukraine has joined the EU, every member of the bloc would be committed to its defence in case of another attack by Russia. That would raise questions about how to deal with what could be a long-term Russian occupation of swathes of Ukraine’s east and south. It would also contrast markedly with the current war, during which no other country has sent its forces to fight on Ukraine’s behalf, although they have offered copious (if, according to Kyiv, still insufficient) military and logistical support.
Most worryingly for Ukraine, pledges of eventual membership of international organisations provide some of the political disadvantages associated with joining but none of the advantages. Both Georgia and Ukraine were promised eventual Nato membership at the alliance’s Bucharest summit in 2008. Neither became Nato members and both were invaded by Russia (Georgia just a few months after the Bucharest summit, Ukraine in 2014 and 2022). That will be a sobering thought for Kyiv, still years away from joining the EU and not assured of victory in a war for its very existence as a sovereign state.
[See also: If Ukraine has a future, it’s with the EU]