“Today marks a crucial step on your way to the EU,” European Council President Charles Michel said on Twitter after the talks in Brussels. The leaders also agreed to approve Moldova’s bid.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he “sincerely praises” the European Council’s decision, calling it “a unique and historic moment in EU/Ukraine relations.”
The decision, taken at an EU Council summit, comes a week after European Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen said the bloc’s executive body’s view was that Ukraine deserved candidate status because “It has clearly demonstrated the aspirations of the country and the will of the country.” determination to live up to European values and standards”.
However, it is still likely to be years before Ukraine can join the EU. The process is long and requires the agreement of the 27 member states at almost every stage. This means that there are multiple opportunities for member states to use their veto as a political bargaining chip.
Before Ukraine can begin negotiations to join the bloc, it must first meet the Copenhagen criteria, an opaque trio of requirements that focus on whether or not a country has a functioning free-market economy; whether its institutions are fit to uphold European values such as human rights and the EU’s interpretation of the rule of law; and if it has a functional and inclusive democracy.
Ukraine is unlikely to be able to meet these criteria while the country is at war, however, von der Leyen acknowledged that it had started to make progress towards them long before the invasion.
Once these criteria are met and all member states have agreed to start talks on all 35 negotiating chapters, ranging from trade to law to civil society, Ukraine must carry out internal reforms to meet the standards required in each. of these areas. Again, all member states must agree that these requirements have been met before closing each chapter.
Once that has happened, the European Parliament and legislative agendas must approve the decision, and eventually Ukraine will be a member state of the EU.
The average time it takes to join the EU is four years and 10 months, according to the UK in a Changing Europe think tank. However, some Eastern European member states have had to wait up to 10 years.
In addition to a long and complicated process, there are also political considerations that could frustrate Ukraine’s European dream.
Not all member states are enthusiastic about Ukraine’s joining the bloc being considered. So it is likely that at each stage one or more will be tempted to put up roadblocks to get a concession on something else the EU is debating, such as the allocation of EU money.
France, Germany and Hungary have been less than enthusiastic in their support. It was only after a visit to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv that the leaders of France, Germany and Italy indicated they would support Ukraine’s candidate status. Hungary has also been late, for various reasons, but mostly because it is Russia’s biggest ally in the EU.
Zelensky has also criticized some European countries for not providing enough weapons as Ukraine finds itself in the midst of a desperate battle to defend the Luhansk region in the east of the country.
The reasons for his hesitation range from concerns about corruption to a shift in power from the bloc’s west to the east if Ukraine is admitted. There are also concerns about how much of the EU budget Ukraine could consume.
While all member states have endorsed the bid, there are still plenty of opportunities for leaders to hold their own in the years to come.
Ukraine’s long road to the EU has only just begun. His candidate status could present a moral victory and send a strong message to Russia. But the reality is that Ukraine must now, largely on its own, make reforms that would be quite difficult at best, let alone while under invasion by a foreign army.