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Ukraine is pushing for EU membership. But what are the real chances?

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By Jorge Liboreiro  & Aida Sanchez Alonso
President Zelenskyy wants the EU to grant Ukraine candidate status through a fast-tracked procedure.
President Zelenskyy wants the EU to grant Ukraine candidate status through a fast-tracked procedure.   -   Copyright  Twitter account of Denys Shmyhal / AFP

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has a clear message for the European Union: Ukraine wants in.

"Do prove that you are with us. Do prove that you will not let us go. Do prove that you are indeed Europeans," the president, wearing military attire, told the European Parliament on Tuesday afternoon.

The previous day, Zelenskyy had signed an official application asking for EU membership, a step that any European county is allowed to initiate on its own. Upping the ante, Zelenskyy requested a fast-tracked procedure to ensure his country joins the bloc as soon as feasibly possible.

The move from Kyiv follows comments made by Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, during an interview with Euronews, where she appeared to endorse Ukraine's bid.

"They belong to us. They are one of us and we want them in," von der Leyen.

An overwhelming majority of MEPs also backed the idea with a non-binding resolution, demanding Ukraine receive candidate status in line with the EU treaties and a "merit-based" approach.

"I think there are moments in time where you need have the courage to take great strides ahead, and if you look at previous enlargements it was always a political decision that had to do with security, with freedom," said Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch MEP whose liberal party has proposed to welcome Zelenskyy's party.

But the path to join the bloc is everything but smooth.

How do you join the EU?

In fact, the so-called accession process is a complex, arduous and expensive undertaking that drags out over several years, even decades, and requires an exceptional commitment from the candidate country, which is asked to implement a lengthy catalogue of reforms to comply with EU norms.

Most importantly, the whole process rests on the political will of the 27 member states. Even if the Commission is the one leading the negotiations and conducting the groundwork, it is up to the capitals to green light each and every step of the road – by unanimity.

The need for consensus has proved to be a recurrent obstacle for enlargement. Bulgaria is currently blocking accession talks with North Macedonia – and, by extension, with Albania – due to a longstanding dispute involving historical and linguistic grievances.

Meanwhile, the other three official candidates – Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey – remain stuck in a negotiation limbo with no breakthrough in sight. In the case of Ankara, the starting date goes back all the way to 1987.

The stalemate reflects the low political appetite for widening the bloc, with attention mostly focused on internal squabbles related to the democratic backsliding of some member states.

But given its unprecedented nature, could Russia's invasion give an extra impetus to Kyiv's great expectations?

What now?

The EU's accession process is designed to fully align the candidate country with the bloc's democratic, economic and social standards.

The procedure is split into four main steps: application, candidacy, negotiations, and accession.

The first one, application, has already taken place after Zelenskyy's signature. The Commission is expected to examine the request and publish a recommendation, either supporting or rejecting the bid.

The Council can then approve Ukraine's application by unanimity, while the Parliament will have to give its consent with a simple majority.

If all the votes are in favour, Ukraine will be officially considered a candidate to join the EU.

After that, the Commission will come up with a framework for negotiations, which also has to be unanimously endorsed by the 27. Ukraine will likely be asked to begin reforms before discussions take place.

The Commission's mandate is then used to guide the accession talks, which are divided in 35 chapters grouped in six main clusters: fundamentals; internal markets; competitiveness and inclusive growth; green agenda and sustainable connectivity; resources, agriculture and cohesion; and external relations.

The process is strictly linear: each chapter opens only after the previous is definitely closed. Fundamentals, which covers issues such as justice, human rights and public institutions, is the the first chapter to be opened and also the last to be closed, underlining the importance the EU gives to core democratic values.

European Union 2022 - Source : EP
President Zelenskyy received a standing ovation after his virtual speech before the European Parliament in Brussels.European Union 2022 - Source : EP

This emphasis on democracy could pose a major roadblock for Ukraine's European path. The country scores poorly in international indexes: Freedom House calls it "partly free" while the Economist describes it as a "hybrid regime." Reporters Without Borders says oligarchs' grip on the media is still too "tight."

"After the [Maidan] revolution in Ukraine, the country is certainly on a pro-democratic and pro-European path. However, its democracy is still fragile and the rule of law is still not enforced properly," says Jana Juzová, a research fellow at EUROPEUM, an independent think-tank focused on European integration.

"In terms of democracy, Ukraine is scoring similarly or even worse as the Western Balkan countries. Corruption, functioning and independence of judiciary, and weak democratic institutions are still among the most problematic issues."

For Juzová, the fact that Ukraine does not exert full control over its own territory – Crimea was illegally annexed by Russia and the Donbas has two separatist provinces – could further complicate things.

"The candidates for EU membership must have clearly defined and consolidated borders, territorial integrity," the researcher told Euronews.

"The EU accession process is by definition supposed to be very strict," she added. "I wouldn’t be too optimistic about Ukraine’s prospects of joining the EU anytime soon."

'Accession doesn't happen overnight'

The main objective of tortuous negotiations is to bring the candidate country as close as possible to all EU rules, legislations and political structures.

The Copenhagen criteria, established in 1993, are the prime reference throughout the whole process. For example: a country that wishes to join the bloc must be able to "cope with the competitive pressure and market forces" within the EU's single market.

Once discussions around all 35 chapters come to an end, an accession treaty is drafted. The text has to be unanimously ratified by the Council and all national parliaments of each member state (lower and high chambers), as well as by a majority vote in the European Parliament.

On average, successful negotiations take between four and five years to complete.

Austria, Finland and Sweden completed the task under two years, while Croatia, the last country to join the EU, needed almost eight. The speed is determined by both the pace of the candidate's reforms and by Council's political interest in closing and opening new chapters.

"This is not something that can happen overnight. It will take time both because of the current practical challenges and priorities confronting the EU," Corina Stratulat, a senior policy analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre (EPC), tells Euronews.

"Entrance to the EU is a process, not an event. Based on what we know so far, this means time, patience and a great deal of preparation on both sides."

Stratulat doubts Ukraine is anywhere "close" to fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria and is seriously concerned about the political risks inherent in a fast-tracked accession procedure, an unheard-of option.

"You can have a faster process if there is political will. However, if the process stays as it is now – that is, complex and rigorous –, a faster accession would require all member states to quickly approve all tens of decisions associated with a country," she says.

"This has not been the case in recent years, even for steps that were symbolic, like granting candidate status to an applicant. And there is also the question of how would a fast-track accession for Ukraine be perceived in the Balkan countries, which have been waiting for a long time and have also seen war and risks of Russian influence."

All eyes on the capitals

Declaring Ukraine an official EU candidate in the midst of Russia's invasion could be seen as a strong proof of commitment and support for a country under siege. But its actual power could be limited to the realm of political symbolism.

For Ukraine to join the bloc in the timeframe requested by Zelenskyy, the whole accession process would have to be simplified and overhauled, increasing the risks of a subpar, rushed procedure that leads to water-downed standards and a sketchy adaptation of EU rules.

For the time being, the only explicit endorsement has come from a coalition of Eastern European states formed by Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. In a plea similar to the parliament's resolution, the group calls for steps to "immediately grant Ukraine an EU candidate status."

Doing so would open Ukraine's door for the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA), a financial programme that helps candidate countries carry out the political, institutional, social and economic reforms needed to face the complex negotiations.

IPA's budget for the period 2021-2027 is €14.2 billion and is being distributed among Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey.

From the Western side, no downright rejection has been voiced due to the extremely delicate circumstances and a widely-shared respect for the figure of Zelenskyy, seen as a war hero.

But in recent days, officials from France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands have expressed caution, arguing that membership is not the appropriate way to address the present conflict.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said in an interview with RTVE that accession was a "long" process with "requirements and reforms" to be met, while Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told the national parliament that the topic was "not a good discussion" to have right now.

"We're not going to help Ukraine that way," Rutte said.

Welcoming a new member state into the 27-strong club will inevitably alter the balance of power in the institutions and tilt the consensus further eastward.

Additional factors like Ukraine's demographic size – over 41 million citizens, geographical location – a massive border shared with Russia – and relative poverty – its GDP per capita is the second-lowest in Europe after Moldova –, are set to weigh heavily in the thinking of the capitals.

Another concern looming over leaders might be Article 42 of the EU treaties, which imposes an obligation of "aid and assistance by all means" if any other member state is a "victim of an armed aggression."

NATO, which has a similar provision of collective defence and shares 21 members with the bloc, has repeatedly said it will not deploy any troops inside Ukraine to fight the Russian army nor help enforce a no-fly zone over the country.

In recent comments, Charles Michel, president of the European Council, the highest authority where EU leaders meet to decide the bloc's political orientation, offered further insights on how the 27 feel about Ukraine's passionate bid.

"Membership is a long-standing request from Ukraine," said Michel.

"But there are different opinions and sensitivities within the EU on enlargement."