Russia’s war against Ukraine has dramatically changed not only the life of Ukrainians and Russians, but of Europeans, too. Many things that seemed impossible just before February 24th, 2022 now look more than probable. Among them is Ukraine’s EU membership.
Ukraine and the EU before 2022
Ukraine’s EU membership as a political goal came into picture in 2000. By then, Ukrainians were increasingly questioning where their country’s development might lead, either towards the East or the West. That year, 56 percent of Ukrainians supported the idea of joining the EU, according to polls. However, those very polls also showed similar — if not higher — adherence to the idea of some type of union with Russia and Belarus. This multipolar geopolitical orientation coincided with Kyiv’s foreign policy, which consisted in a balancing act between connections with the West and Russia as well as a delay of a strategic answer as regards the trajectory of Ukraine’s development.
However, since 2013, Ukraine’s geopolitical ambivalence and developmental disorientation came to an end. Euromaidan, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the beginning of the Donbass war, and the sign-off of the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement were historical events that collectively determined Ukraine’s European choice. This decision was made by the post-Maidan power elites in the form of Constitutional amendments alongside the Ukrainian population, whose support for EU membership oscillated between 51 percent (2016) and 58 percent (2021). After the start of the war, however, the level of support for integration into the EU reached 86 percent.
In the EU, Ukraine’s membership aspirations were appreciated yet perceived ambiguously. On the one hand, the European Parliament stated Ukraine had had an EU membership perspective since 2005. On the other hand, several decisions did not offer Ukraine such a perspective — for example, the European Council’s decision after the Netherland’s referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. The Eastern Partnership policy and the enhanced dialogue between Kyiv and Brussels — with seven summits between 2015 and 2021 — embodied such a mixed approach, which now seems to belong to the past.
The War and Ukraine as an EU Candidate
The Russian war against Ukraine has given momentum not only to Europeans’ increased support for Ukraine’s membership, but also for the EU leadership accepting this perspective. On the fourth day of the war, on February 28th, President Zelensky officially submitted a letter of application for EU membership, requesting a special procedure for Ukraine’s immediate admission into the Union. On the same day, the leaders of eight central and eastern European nations called on EU member states to grant Ukraine “candidate country” status immediately. The following day, on 1st March 2022, the European Parliament issued a recommendation — with 637 in favor and 13 votes against — in support of Ukraine’s official "candidate" status.
Nonetheless, the European Commission’s first reaction was somewhat contradictory. To exemplify, right after the European Parliament’s vote on March 1st, Ursula von der Leyen said she had no “doubt that a people that stand up so bravely for our European values belong in our European family”, adding however that for Ukraine “there is still a long path ahead”.
This kind of reaction is quite understandable. The process is complex and long and involves several steps, conditions, as well as deep reforms. Moreover, there is already a list of countries that had submitted their candidacy bids before Ukraine. For instance, Montenegro and Serbia have been in endless talks with the EU for their accession since 2012 and 2014, respectively. Albania and North Macedonia have also been waiting for their admission into the Union. Despite its “frozen” application, Turkey is also on the list, though the process has been stalled. Ukraine’s bid has also inspired Georgia and Moldova to apply for the membership. As such, even with sufficient political will in Brussels to provide Ukraine with the candidate status, it would immediately raise issues between the EU and other aspiring nations.
Moreover, for the EU’s legal and political culture, the issue of procedure is very important. Until a decision is reached around which procedure ought to be created and applied for the Ukrainian case, it is likely to be delayed. These hesitations by France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain. Paris, for example, has warned its allies that “we must be careful not to make promises that we cannot keep”.
Despite these hesitations and obstacles, with the war getting nastier and European solidarity growing stronger, EU member states have raised the pressure for the European Commission to accelerate its decision-making process. At the EU summit in Versailles on March 10th, the European Council demanded the EC not to delay the necessary decisions on Ukraine's application and “to submit its opinion on this application in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Treaties”.
Four weeks later, during her historical visit to war-torn Kyiv on April 8th, 2022, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen handed President Zelensky the questionnaire that would become the basis for Ukraine’s full application package. Brussels expects the full package to be received by summer 2022. Zelensky immediately replied that Ukraine’s aim is “to be in the European Union”. Prime Minster Shmygal confirmed the government has already started working on the documents necessary for the formal application. As such, it appears a mutual decision on the application has been made.
There are many questions related to Ukraine’s bid: in particular, two might have a decisive role in the outcome of the process.
First, Ukraine’s EU membership is not just an issue for relations between Ukraine and EU member states. Before and after the war, Russia has played — and will continue to play — its own role in this process. Now, in the ongoing diplomatic consultations between Ukraine and Russia, EU membership is one of the issues in the peace “quid pro quo package”— together with Ukraine’s NATO membership, neutrality, security guarantees, and territorial integrity. As demonstrated before, Russia may create conditions under which Ukraine’s admission in the EU could create new, additional risks for other EU member states. As such, the results of these talks could have a critical impact on the EU-Ukraine dialogue.
Second, will Brussels and EU member states make an exception for Ukraine as regards satisfying the necessary political, economic, and legal requirements to join the EU? As a country at war and with a history of socio-economic and political hardships, Ukraine would need exclusive terms — more exclusive than in the cases of Bulgaria and Romania — and special procedures to join the EU.
The next several months will show how Ukraine and the EU will deal with these issues and where Ukrainian progress might be directed— either westwards or southwards.