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Could Ukraine kick-start the EU's stalled enlargement plan?

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By Sergio Cantone
Pro-Ukrainian rally in front of the European Parliament in Brussels
Pro-Ukrainian rally in front of the European Parliament in Brussels   -   Copyright  JONAS ROOSENS/AFP

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for Ukraine to be given European Union membership amid the invasion of the country by Russia and a vote in the European parliament on Tuesday suggested that the vast majority of MEPs agree with him. But the process is unlikely to be an easy one.

“Technically, the whole accession process of Ukraine to join the EU should take at least three EU budget cycles. It could be more than ten years," said Cyrille Bret, at the Jaques Delors Institute in Paris.

"But it is also a political decision”

An EU official told Euronews that even a change of wording could be significant. At the last EU Council, 27 member states "acknowledged" Ukraine bid to join the EU.

“After these weeks, the next conclusion could be that the 27 welcome [it]," the official said.

Even the preliminary steps will not be easy. Kyiv will have to become a formal candidate to the EU accession, meaning Ukraine will have to submit its demand to the EU Commission. That will have to be approved by the 27 member states.

"[Not all of them] are staunch supporters of further enlarging the bloc to the east," said Bret.

"It will definitely move the focal point of the European Union to the east, and weaken the west, the south and especially the candidate countries of the Western Balkans."

Fast-track accession of Ukraine to the EU would be an historical political decision and it will depend on how the conflict will develop and what kind of regime will emerge in Kyiv. As well as the situation in Moscow.

How long would it take?

Just how long it can take is something that is well known in the Western Balkans.

"European integration is a long row, and that in this historical moment all the support must be given to Ukraine, and remind that words are bullets in foreign policy" said Majlinda Bregu, president of the Regional Cooperation Council, a body made up of south-east European countries.

"We don’t know if there is any fast track to become a member of the EU. We know that it is a merit-based approach. It is based on conditionality, alignement of legislation and [becoming] part of the single market."

With 44 million inhabitants, Ukraine has major issues inherited from Soviet and the post-Soviet policies. If the council accepts its candidacy status, Kyiv will have to start the negotiations to introduce the acquis communautaire, the entire body of EU law.

It is an extremely complex and expansive process that impose to the candidate country to adapt its entire legislation to the EU standards.

Ukraine has already taken some relevant steps, thanks to the implementation of the Association Agreement with the EU in 2017.

It is mostly a technical document that includes a Free Trade Agreement and some provisions concerning the respect of the rule of law, the transparency of the red tape, the fight against corruption, sound tax policies and other good governance practices.

In a sense the legislative alignment process by Kyiv was started five years ago.

Vladimir Putin first realised that he had lost Ukraine when the country was about to sign the Association Agreement in 2014. Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, ordered by Putin, did not sign the treaty, which provoked the revolution of Euromaidan, and all its consequences.

What implications could there be for the EU?

Ukrainian membership will have a huge impact on the Common Agriculture Policy, since Ukraine is the second grains and cereal producer in the world.

The EU will have to redistribute all its cohesion policy and shrink the funds to the current recipients, such as central and southern European countries.

And ultimately the EU budget will have to be increased against the interests of the frugal countries.

Nevertheless, it is time to move on, concludes Majlinda Bregu.

"The process of enlargement is not a methodological one, it is a political one, and this is the momentum for the entire enlargement process to move a bit".