Growing pains: What would it take for Ukraine to join the European Union?

Despite Brussels stepping up efforts to accelerate the country’s route to EU membership, the path to joining the bloc remains rocky.
The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at a press conference with Charles Michel and Ursula Von Der Leyen in Brussels following his visit to the European Parliament in February 2023.

By Gabriele Rosana

Gabriele Rosana is a Brussels-based journalist and policy analyst writing about EU affairs

04 Apr 2024

"We are fighting for our survival… but we’re also fighting to be equal members of Europe."

On 1 March 2022, less than a week after the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of his country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed via videoconference an extraordinary meeting of the plenary of the European Parliament gathered in Brussels. Then, he appealed for a fast-tracked process to admit Ukraine into the 27-strong member bloc. 

Zelensky spoke hours after having submitted an application for his country to join the European Union as a full member. Often described as a ‘homecoming’ moment, the move has been seen as a complement to the political, financial and military support the EU has provided the country since the start of the war. 

Although the political push is key, EU officials portray accession as a technical, merit-based process that normally takes several years to finalise. It’s one, officials stress, that requires in-depth talks to reform the governmental and bureaucratic structures of a candidate country and align its standards and laws with the body of EU rules – the Community acquis – and is an operation normally structured around 35 thematic chapters.  

From the EU’s perspective, walking down the path of Ukrainian accession means revamping the bloc’s enlargement agenda.

New reality

Today, there are nine countries queueing at different stages in the process to become EU members, the majority of which are in the Western Balkans. The last country to join was Croatia – more than a decade ago. Following Zagreb’s entry in 2013, the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, promised no further expansion would take place in the short term, giving the bloc time to adapt to the new reality that had seen 13 countries become members in the previous decade.  

The withdrawal of the United Kingdom, following the 2016 Brexit referendum, further sidelined any ambition to continue expanding EU borders and gave new impetus to the idea of ‘enlargement fatigue’ – an increasing scepticism about the bloc’s capacity to welcome new countries.

Those times are now long gone, Michael Leigh, a former director general of the Commission department responsible for accession negotiations between 2006 and 2011 and now a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, tells The Parliament. He believes that since the outbreak of war, enlargement is being used as “a geopolitical tool” by an EU striving to become more autonomous in a rapidly evolving and contested international arena. 

After Zelensky filed the application, it took EU authorities just a few months to find the necessary consensus to move forward with the procedure, without “the detailed impact assessment” that would normally have been produced under different circumstances, Leigh says. On 17 June 2022, the Commission recommended EU leaders grant Ukraine the status of candidate country. The first step in the accession process, it was endorsed at the highest political level at a summit of heads of state and government a few days later – with some strings attached.  

The clock for timely advancements with Kyiv is ticking.

These include seven conditions Kyiv is required to implement, including judicial, anti-corruption and anti-oligarch reforms, while improving domestic legislation vis-à-vis national minorities. In November 2023, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen estimated that Ukraine had completed “well over 90 per cent of the necessary steps set out” the previous year.   

Despite the war and its impact on all levels of society – including an inability to hold elections amid the ongoing implementation of martial law – a Commission report published in 2023 noted that “the Ukrainian government and Parliament showed determination to carry out the necessary reforms.” These reforms pertain to areas such as democratic fundamentals, participation in the internal market, willingness to embrace the objectives of the green agenda, and the ability to assume the obligations of membership and ensure a competitive economic environment. 

However, there is an unspoken pre-condition to fulfil. In a recent policy brief on Kyiv’s path to EU membership, the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel argued that the country’s entry to the bloc will ultimately depend “greatly on how and when the war with Russia ends and post-war reconstruction starts.”  

Constructive abstention 

Nonetheless, the Commission’s positive assessment paved the way for EU governments to – surprisingly – move forward at a summit in December 2023, during which leaders greenlit the opening of membership negotiations with Ukraine, as well as Moldova. They overcame Hungary’s veto, a pro-Russian pariah in the EU and the main hurdle for Kyiv in the bloc, by suggesting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán leave the room at the time of the vote.  

He did so “in a pre-agreed and constructive manner,” according to high-level officials familiar with the talks. The constructive abstention trick worked once, but Orbán almost immediately then called out the “completely illogical, irrational and improper decision” by his 26 peers. He has repeatedly cited allegations that the government in Kyiv is infringing upon the rights of Hungarian minorities in Ukraine as a key reason to obstruct the country’s accession bid.  

“We calculated that there will be roughly 140 veto points all throughout the process,” Zsolt Darvas, a senior fellow at Bruegel, explains to The Parliament: “The renewed momentum for enlargement does not mean it will be easier for Ukraine to join – there is no way that existing criteria are going to be eased.” 

Welcoming Ukraine could have enormous consequences for the EU as a whole – and likely accelerate the case for internal reform of the bloc’s common institutions, including moving away from unanimous decision making on decisive matters like foreign and tax policy.  

Economic disparities 

Ukraine is a big country. Before the Russian invasion, its population was estimated at around 45 million people. While many have fled over the past two years, if admitted to the EU Ukraine would still be the fifth biggest member state, just behind Spain and ahead of Poland.  

It would also be the poorest, meaning it would be among the major beneficiaries of structural funds aimed at levelling economic disparities in the bloc. According to a calculation by Bruegel, using the current EU seven-year budget figures as a reference value, Kyiv would receive €85bn in agriculture subsidies and €32bn in cohesion policy payments after joining the EU. In exchange, Darvas argues, the country’s entry would benefit the bloc’s economy via trade and investment opportunities for EU companies, as well as by boosting employment, production and tax revenues.

Following an oral update given by the Commission in a closed-door meeting with EU governments in mid-March, the next step would be the unanimous adoption of a negotiating framework, which sets out the guidelines and basic principles for accession talks.  

Once the framework is approved and the intergovernmental conference established, negotiations can begin, with unanimity required to progress on every chapter up until the moment when an accession treaty is signed and ratified by all members – which in some countries could even imply holding a referendum.  

‘Importing insecurity’ 

A new methodology adopted by the Commission in early 2020 groups the various negotiating chapters in six clusters. The rule of law cluster – which includes the chapters on an independent judiciary, fundamental rights and public procurement – is the first to be opened and the last to be closed. This would ensure continued monitoring of an issue that has proven highly controversial for some of the current EU member states themselves.  

Andrii Borovyk, executive director of Transparency International Ukraine, believes the new wave of attention devoted to these subjects has been “a good push for the country to advance in the sense of anti-corruption,” even during the war. In a phone call from Kyiv, he explains to The Parliament that “there is a lot we still need to do,” but stresses the progress made by Ukraine in the negotiation process.  

This is seen as “a good opportunity for Ukraine to get a roadmap and some homework assignments on how to build up its institutions and advance on the judicial reforms,” Borovyk says. In 2023, Ukraine advanced three points year-over-year on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index – one of the most significant improvements worldwide – to score 36 out 100, putting it on par with Brazil. The index scale denotes zero as “highly corrupt” and 100 as “very clean.”  

Having a date can be a powerful motivating factor for difficult domestic reasons.

Even if there is some progress on corruption, there are still areas of concern that could block Ukraine’s accession path in the medium-to-long term. From the EU perspective, Leigh calls this the risk of “importing insecurity rather than exporting stability, which has been hardly discussed” by EU institutions. “If Ukraine was to be admitted without regaining control of its full territory, this will become a problem for the EU,” he says. 

When Cyprus joined in 2004, days after a failed UN-backed referendum on reunifying the island that has been split into two since the 1974 Turkish occupation of the north, the EU said “never again” to admitting nations with breakaway regions and frozen conflicts. “This has led to endless problems with Turkey,” Leigh adds. “We have not drawn a lesson from the Cyprus experience.” Now, the EU is faced with a “much more serious situation,” in Leigh’s eyes, “with a country that at least for the time being does not control 20 per cent or more of its territory [and] which is occupied by a hostile foreign power.”  

Reality check 

In 1995, Austria, Finland and Sweden managed to join the EU in just under two years. By contrast, it took Croatia around eight years. While it is not possible to anticipate how long negotiations with Ukraine will last, some authoritative voices, including president of the European Council Charles Michel, have recently called for an accelerated timeframe, expanding the union’s border by 2030. French President Emmanuel Macron, an enlargement sceptic, was the first to do a reality check on this appeal, hinting that the process may take “several decades.” 

Talks are conducted during intergovernmental conferences where all EU countries have an equal voice – so successive veto points cannot be circumvented. Historically, bilateral regional issues have held back enlargement progress, Darvas says. He recalls “the case of Slovenia blocking Croatia because of a border dispute in the Adriatic Sea,” and Greece and Bulgaria stalling the start of talks with North Macedonia over issues pertaining to the country’s former name, Macedonia, as well as laws targeting ethnic Bulgarian minorities.  

It will be more difficult for Orbán to be disruptive when he is chair than when he is not.

Betraying the aspirations and frustrating the expectations of Ukrainians by pushing talks into a deadlock, especially if 2030 is set as a likely target, is a major risk. Political divergence and reciprocal dissatisfaction has caused similar obstructions to Turkey’s accession application over the course of the past two decades. “If the process in practice turns out to be slower and more difficult than foreseen at the beginning, we might find ourselves in a similar situation,” Leigh warns. Darvas agrees: “Having a date can be a powerful motivating factor for difficult domestic reasons,” he says, but “can also lead to great disappointment.”  

A gradual, alternative form of association to the current all-or-nothing approach was outlined by a Commission strategic document published in March: countries could participate in selected policies without being offered full EU membership. This is the “staged accession model proposed by the policy community” over the years, Leigh says – one that has the merit of giving the country in question “a stake in the internal market” and could even become the blueprint of “a renewed neighbourhood policy for the EU, for instance with the UK.”  

A 2025 turning point? 

The clock for timely advancements with Kyiv is ticking. Delaying the adoption of the negotiating framework is causing major headaches. The Belgians are in a hurry to make concrete progress while they are at the helm of the Council of the European Union – until 30 June – despite Von der Leyen having signalled in February that the next step might need to wait until after the European Parliament elections in June.  

Some fear that when Hungary takes over the Council baton on 1 July, the dossier may be stalled for a semester, as it is up to the presidency-in-office to draft the agenda and steer the process.  

A high-level EU diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity, is feeling more optimistic and believes Budapest might be an unexpectedly honest broker: “It will be more difficult for Orbán to be disruptive when he is chair than when he is not,” the person says. Other senior European diplomats disagree, instead betting on early 2025, when Poland will be in the driver’s seat, as a likely turning point for Ukraine’s EU ambitions. 

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