"Today marks a crucial step on your path towards the EU”.
This was stated by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, after the granting of candidate status for EU membership to Ukraine was confirmed.
A week earlier, Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky called for his country's "immediate" EU membership in order to defend itself against Russia's invasion. At the time, the president of the bloc's chamber responded to the membership request by explaining that it was "legitimate" and that they would examine it "seriously". Now Ukraine has been granted candidate status by the European Commission and will be approved by the EU 27 next week on its own merits. European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen claimed Ukraine met 70% of the fundamental values promoted by the EU, as enshrined in Article 49 of the Treaty. However, she said reforms would have to be undertaken first.
This "historic moment" reflects Europeans' commitment to Ukraine and the similarities between the country and the bloc on issues of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Thus the war has played out in their favour as this is a clear message of support for the Ukrainians. However, although the news has been greeted with great acclaim and many Ukrainians see Brussels as an ally in rebuilding their country after the war, accession is not an easy process, let alone a quick one.
The Association Agreement is Insufficient
The Association Agreement was signed between Ukraine and the European Union in 2017, which strengthened their political and economic ties and promoted respect for their shared values. As a result of this agreement, they were able to continue a good relationship. As of 2016, the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) has been in force, allowing Ukraine's economy to thrive.
While the Association Agreement aims to combat the Russian onslaught, it falls short in a situation like the current one, where the Ukrainian government is requesting greater EU engagement. Therefore, Zelenski has been demanding Ukraine's membership in the European Union since the days before the invasion began, to allow them to link beyond political or economic spheres, and force other countries to intervene militarily.
The Whole EU Would Enter The War
EU member states would be at war with Russia if Ukraine joined the EU, according to Article 42 of the EU Treaty. In the article, it states that if a Member State is the target of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States must render aid and assistance.
It is known to Zelenski that Ukraine's membership in the supranational body would entail the EU's involvement in the armed conflict. Earlier this week, he spoke to EU representatives to ask that they "[do] not leave them alone", as joining forces is the only way to ensure that "life beats death." Unfortunately, if Putin does end the war this year, as he has claimed in the past, there will be no time for the Ukrainian president's demands to be met, confirming that this is only a symbolic endorsement.
What Happens Next?
As a result of unprecedented circumstances, Brussels and Kiev have accelerated this first step, which usually takes years, and in this case has lasted only weeks - but the race has many stages. For its legislation to be in line with the acquis communautaire and respect European democratic values, the Kiev government must negotiate 35 chapters with Brussels. Before the Council consults with the Commission about Ukraine's application, it will have to pass through the European Parliament and national parliaments. The process of enlarging the EU is usually lengthy, but it could be significantly shortened due to the exceptional situation of the Ukrainians. Many member states believe that in previous enlarging's, countries that were not yet ready were admitted, which complexified the EU's functioning.
EU enlargement has ground to a halt since Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia joined in 2007 and 2013, respectively. Turkey, for instance, was declared a candidate in December 1999 and has no prospect of membership anytime soon. The Brussels government, on the other hand, seems to be moving away from European standards.
Spain, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and the UK are among the countries that are most sceptical of Ukraine's accelerated EU membership. Zelenski's government, on the other hand, has the "full support" of the European Parliament, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Several leaders of these countries wrote a letter last week arguing that Ukraine should have immediate prospects of joining the EU. However, as for now, this seems very unlikely to happen.