Facing an existential threat, Ukraine seeks ‘immediate’ EU membership but can the bloc deliver?

European Council president Charles Michel watches as Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the European Parliament on March 1, 2022. © John Thys, AFP

President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked that Ukraine be granted "immediate" EU membership “via a new special procedure" and signed an official application for candidacy. But despite the stated backing of several MEPs, heads of state and even European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, such support is largely symbolic; the process of joining the EU is long, complex and requires the unanimous agreement of all 27 member states.  

Under fire from Russian forces and facing an existential threat, Ukraine has taken steps to anchor itself to the rest of Europe. President Volodymyr Zelensky called for a decision on Ukrainian membership “once and for all” at the weekend before formally signing an application for EU membership on Monday and appealing for his country to be fast-tracked in its effort to join the bloc.

“We ask the European Union for Ukraine’s immediate accession via a new special procedure,” he said via video link from Kyiv as Russian troops made inroads into several regions of Ukraine. “Our goal is to be together with all Europeans and, most importantly, to be on an equal footing. I’m sure it’s fair. I’m sure it’s possible.”

“Prove that you are with us. Prove that you will not let us go,” he implored.

In an interview with Euronews TV published on Sunday, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen expressed her support for Ukrainian membership but did not address the calls for rapid accession. “They are one of us and we want them in,” she said. 

In an open letter published later that day, the presidents of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia called for EU institutions to move “to immediately grant Ukraine … EU candidate country status and open the process of negotiations”.

But neither von der Leyen nor the heads of state of EU members have the authority to grant EU candidate status or speed up the membership process. Such decisions must be unanimously agreed by all 27 member countries, who – particularly in recent years – have found themselves in vehement disagreement on a range of issues, including enlargement.

And other EU officials have been more circumspect in their response to Ukrainian aspirations. At a press conference in Berlin on Monday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock underscored that the road to EU membership can be long and arduous.

“[J]oining the EU is not something that can be done in a few months ... it involves an intensive and far-reaching transformation process,” she said.  

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Monday that while Europe as a whole was facing an “existential threat” from Russia’s regression to “law of the jungle”, EU membership for Ukraine could still take "a lot of years".

Five countries currently hold official EU candidate status: Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey. Turkey’s bid has been stalled for years amid domestic political backsliding, and Montenegro and Serbia have been in accession talks since 2012 and 2014, respectively. Albania and North Macedonia were approved for membership talks in 2020 but they have yet to begin.   

Is a ‘special procedure’ viable?

Despite the challenges, could the war in Ukraine serve as a catalyst for accelerating Kiev's EU accession? The EU has never outlined a "special procedure" for rapid accession due to extenuating circumstances, so one would have to be invented. That would involve the cumbersome project of amending EU treaties, a venture that could take several years.

The bloc must also have time to examine each aspect of Ukrainian legislation – from the environment to the rule of law to the functioning of the economy, including the regulation of agricultural products and manufacturing – to determine how they can be brought into line with EU law. 

"We clearly see that this solution is not viable in the short term," said Pascale Joannin, the director general of the Robert Schuman Foundation, a European research centre. "In reality, we would not be able to proceed any faster for Ukraine than for other member states. From experience, we know that it takes about 10 years" to gain EU membership. 

Moreover, immediate membership would have the effect of plunging the EU into a state of war, wrote Jean Quatremer, European correspondent for French newspaper "Libération", noting that the bloc’s founding Lisbon Treaty contains a "mutual assistance clause" – much like NATO’s Article 5 – which would put the EU onto an immediate war footing with Russia. 

A lengthy and complex process

It is likely that Ukraine will therefore have little choice but to go through the three main stages of the standard accession process. First, Ukraine’s application for official candidate status must be accepted and the European Council must unanimously agree on a framework for negotiations.

After attaining candidate status, negotiations can begin – a cumbersome and complex procedure. Ukraine will need to comply with the policy criteria outlined in 35 “negotiating chapters” of EU accession covering most sectors of governance, from energy to taxation to social policy. Moreover, negotiations on any chapter are only closed when “every EU government is satisfied with the candidate's progress in that policy field”. 

The third and final phase includes the signing of an accession treaty between the member states and the candidate nation. The treaty must be approved by the EU Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament; signed by the representatives of all existing EU countries; and ratified by each EU member state according to their own constitutional rules (parliamentary vote, referendum, etc.).

Closer to the EU fold?

After having levied unprecedentedly heavy economic sanctions on Moscow and making plans to ship arms, medical equipment and financial aid to Ukraine, European institutions want to continue to reaffirm their solidarity with Kyiv.

"What EU deputies and European leaders are now doing is something that Ukrainians have hoped for, and they have noticed,” said Antoine Guéry, spokesperson for the head of the European Parliament’s Renew Europe group, Stéphane Séjourné. “It is the least we can do for Europe’s institutions and elected representatives to be there at this historic moment.”

But even while it waits for official EU candidate status, Ukraine could be integrated more closely into European institutions. The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, a political bloc at the European Parliament, announced Tuesday that Sluha Narodu, the party founded by Zelensky, had been made a member.

Ukraine first tried to take decisive steps toward Brussels in 2013 by signing an association agreement with the EU, an accord that was unilaterally scuttled by the country’s pro-Russian then president, Viktor Yanukovych. An association agreement is often considered a precursor to European Union accession.

Yanukovych’s move sparked the mass pro-EU street protests of the Maidan Revolution, which eventually led to his ouster. 

The association agreement, including a free trade accord, was finally signed the following year under former president Petro Poroshenko, setting off alarm bells in Moscow.

"The association agreement sparked Maïdan but also the first invasion in Crimea," Guéry said, adding: "This indicates that, for Russia and for Vladimir Putin, the problem is not NATO" but Ukraine’s moves toward a more European future.

The European Parliament on Tuesday adopted a non-binding resolution calling on EU members to work towards granting Ukraine EU candidate status, with 637 votes in favour, 13 against and 26 abstentions. In the meantime, the resolution called on members "to work towards Ukraine’s integration into the EU single market along the lines of the existing EU-Ukraine Association Agreement".

Any advances on this front are sure to further antagonise the Kremlin. In a telephone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday, Putin outlined the conditions for a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, including the "recognition of Crimea as Russian territory", the "de-Nazification" of the Ukrainian government and "neutral status" for Ukraine.

Published on: 03/03/2022 - 18:50/Updated on 06/03/2022-22:42