Analysis: What does Ukraine joining the EU really mean?

European Commission green-lit Ukraine for EU candidate status, but becoming a member might take years because of the war with Russia.

Ukrainian and EU flags fly in front of the Presidential Administration in Kiev, Ukraine
Ukrainian and EU flags fly in front of the presidential administration in Kyiv, Ukraine [File: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters]

Four days after Russia’s “special military operation” started on February 24, Ukraine signed an official request to join the European Union – a move that Russia had long reviled.

On Friday, the European Commission recommended that Ukraine should be granted European Union candidate status.

Now, all 27 EU countries need to agree to grant Ukraine candidate status, which will be discussed during the EU leaders’ summit on June 23-24.

But even if candidacy is green-lit, working towards full membership status can take years or even decades.

Georgia and Moldova also submitted their bid for membership a week after Russian forces entered Ukraine in February, which also will be considered during the EU summit.

Moldova received the European Commission recommendation for candidate status and the country’s officials welcomed the decision, expecting EU leaders’ approval next week. But the European Commission said Georgia needs to meet certain conditions before it can be granted candidate status.

‘Ukraine belongs to the European family’

Matching the EU’s rigorous conditions to join the bloc can take years, especially for a country in a state of war. Demands range from creating a competitive market economy to guaranteeing democratic rule.

“These negotiations can be very complicated. It doesn’t mean that it ends in membership,” said Bruno Lété, a senior fellow on security and defence at The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels, giving the example of Turkey, a candidate country since 1999.

The leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Romania visited Kyiv on Thursday and backed Ukraine’s EU membership, starting with the candidate state status.

“Ukraine belongs to the European family,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said, while Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi added, “The most important message of our visit is that Italy wants Ukraine in the EU.”

European leaders have used Ukraine’s EU membership to show their solidarity and both “don’t necessarily have to be the exact same thing”, Will Daniel, assistant professor in comparative politics at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, said.

“I worry that for the EU to say that Ukraine is now a candidate country that may be inferred by people as different than what it actually means in terms of practice,” he added.

If the candidacy for membership is approved, many question how it will affect EU funding to Ukraine. So far the bloc has sent about two billion euros ($2.1bn) for Ukraine to buy military equipment, with the most recent approved package of 500 million euros ($522.5m).

Ukraine becoming a candidate “should not have direct implications for the types of aid and support that are already being made available, and could continue during the future months”, Daniel said.

Russia-Ukraine war

It has been nearly four months since Russian military forces entered Ukraine and till now both sides continue fighting for their version of “freedom”.

At least 4,031 people have been killed, including nearly 200 children as of the end of May, the UN rights office (OHCHR) has reported. Almost five million Ukrainian refugees have been recorded in Europe amid the war as of June 9, according to OHCHR data.

Even though territorial integrity is not a formal condition of joining the EU, “everyone understands that you need to control your territory before you are accessing the European Union,” Lété said.


Since 2014, the Crimean Peninsula has been annexed from Ukraine and Moscow-backed separatists have controlled the southeastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Now, Ukraine is facing further violations of territorial integrity as Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree to give Russian citizenship and passports to Russian-occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.

“We can expect that Russia will try to destabilise Ukraine’s territorial integrity to keep the country in this order, with the aim to prevent fast progress on this EU negotiations,” Lété told Al Jazeera.

‘War resources’

It might take years for Ukraine to restore and improve the work of institutions in Ukraine, and then win the approval of all EU countries.

“The war will complicate things,” Lété said, adding, “the attention, the resources of Ukraine will probably go mostly to the war and less resources will be able to be invested in the European Union negotiations.”

Ukraine, a country with 40 million people, would be a massive addition to the EU. For example, the European parliament’s 750 seats are divided based on population, and it would lead to other countries losing seats, and thus, power.

“There’s unanimity among member states, but clearly when it comes to real membership, the European Union is still divided,” Lété said.

Effects on the region

It has been almost a decade since a country went from a candidate to a member, with the last nation being Croatia in 2013.

“The EU was being accused of being tired of enlarging,” Lété said, adding this move might be a “positive signal for countries like Serbia and Turkey”.

However, joining the membership is an individual process on a case-by-case basis where each country has to fulfil set requirements. But discussions about the remaining countries have started.

Scholz said both Ukraine and Western Balkans should join the EU, promising to help with the membership campaign to get rid of Russian influence in the region.

Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia are already candidate states, with accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania starting in March 2020. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are also potential candidates for EU membership.

“Ukraine is key to the future of the European security architecture. There cannot be any European stability without stability in Ukraine, and EU membership will contribute to the stability,” Lété said.

Source: Al Jazeera