BERLIN. This was the best metaphor for EU-Ukraine relations: Vladimir Zelensky frightened look at the camera Emmanuel Macron grabbed him in an unexpected hug. After Russia invaded the country of the Ukrainian president, he appealed to the West for help – with markedly different reactions in different countries.
Zelensky did not hide his dissatisfaction with the repeated statements by his French colleague about the need not to “humiliate” Russia, but Olaf Scholzthe German chancellor, for being slow to send heavy weapons that Kyiv says Kyiv needs as artillery warfare continues in the east in Ukraine.
But on Thursday (June 16), Scholz and Macron, along with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, said they supported Ukraine’s bid to become an official candidate for EU membership. Ukraine applied only on February 28, four days after the Russian invasion; It usually takes years to formally move towards candidate status, but on Friday the European Commission, in turn, backed the move. It is expected to be formalized at the European Council meeting next week.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said: “In the opinion of the Commission, Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the country’s commitment and determination to meet European standards.” She praised Ukraine’s progress in anti-corruption and democratic reforms, albeit with the caveat that “this is, of course, on the understanding that the country will carry out a number of further reforms.” She supported the creation of a similar state for Moldova, but Georgia, another post-Soviet state, was told further reforms were needed before it could develop.
“This is a glimmer of hope for Ukraine in a future shrouded in doubt,” said Georgina Wright, director of the European program at Institut Montaigne, a public policy think tank. “But expansion will always be incredibly complex and you can’t speed it up. There are just so many things that need to happen.”
Conditions for the rule of law and democratic reforms could be imposed before the EU starts accession negotiations with Ukraine. Once opened, the accession negotiations will be broken down into 35 chapters covering various aspects of EU law such as customs, the single market and the environment. While in some cases negotiations were completed in as little as two years, in others they took decades. Turkey received candidate status in 1999; the negotiations dragged on until 2018, when they were frozen by Brussels due to deteriorating conditions for democracy under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
EU leaders have repeatedly warned that it will take years or decades for Ukraine to join. They cite fears of corruption, not to mention a war with Russia that could last for another months and whose effects will be felt for decades.
The decision to grant Ukraine candidate status is nothing short of symbolic as Kyiv continues to fight a war it warns it could very well lose. However, this is contrary to the reluctance of Germany and France to provide Ukraine with heavy weapons on the same scale as the US and UK. A day before the leaders of France, Italy and Germany first visited Ukraine – a few months later than some of their other EU counterparts, including the prime ministers of Poland and the Czech Republic – US President Joe Biden announced more military aid in the amount of 1 billion dollars. to Ukraine. EU leaders have refrained from promising further assistance to Ukraine, whether military or financial.
“If Ukraine is granted candidate status,” Wright said, “their key question is what can we do between now and when they eventually join the EU. How can Ukraine get more participation in the EU markets and more political, financial and institutional support?” More importantly, EU member states will need to increase military aid to Ukraine if it is to contain or even reverse the Russian offensive in the Donbas.
One particularly pertinent unanswered question is how EU membership will affect Ukraine’s current and future conflict with Russia. Zelenskiy has suggested that Kyiv might abandon its bid to join NATO in exchange for yet-to-be-formulated security guarantees from other countries. However, the EU treaties include a mutual defense clause similar to the NATO Article 5 clause on mutual defense.
On paper, once Ukraine joins the EU, every member of the bloc will be committed to defending it in the event of another Russian attack. This will raise questions about what to do about what could be long-term Russian occupation of parts of eastern and southern Ukraine. It will also contrast markedly with the current war, during which no other country has sent troops to fight on the side of Ukraine, although it has offered abundant (though, according to Kyiv, still insufficient) military and logistical support.
Most worrisome for Ukraine is that promises of possible membership in international organizations bring some of the political inconvenience associated with joining, but no benefits. Both Georgia and Ukraine were promised possible NATO membership at the alliance’s 2008 Bucharest summit. Neither became a member of NATO and both were captured by Russia (Georgia just a few months after the Bucharest summit, Ukraine in 2014 and 2022). This will be a sobering thought for Kyiv, which is still far from joining the EU and unsure of winning the war for the very existence of its sovereign state.
[See also: If Ukraine has a future, it’s with the EU]