“Today marks a crucial step on your path towards the European Union,” European Council President Charles Michel said on Twitter following negotiations in Brussels. The leaders also agreed to approve Moldova’s candidacy.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he “sincerely praised” the European Council’s decision, calling it “a unique and historic moment in EU-Ukraine relations.”
The decision, taken at a summit of the EU Council, comes a week after European Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen said it was the bloc’s executive body that Ukraine deserved candidate status because it “has clearly demonstrated its aspiration and the country’s will to live up to European values and standards. “
However, it will still be several years before Ukraine can join the EU. The process is lengthy and requires acceptance from the 27 member states at almost all stages. This means that there are more opportunities for member states to use their veto as a political bargaining chip.
Before Ukraine can start negotiations to join the bloc, it must first meet the Copenhagen criteria – an opaque trio of demands that focus on whether a country has a functioning free market economy; whether its institutions are capable of upholding European values such as human rights and the EU’s interpretation of the rule of law; and whether it has a functioning, inclusive democracy.
It is unlikely that Ukraine will be able to meet these criteria while the country is at war, but von der Leyen acknowledged that it had begun to make progress in reaching them long before the invasion.
Once these criteria have been met and all Member States have agreed to open negotiations on the 35 negotiating chapters – from trade to law to civil society – Ukraine will then have to make domestic reforms to meet the required standards in each of these areas. Again, all Member States must agree that these requirements are met before concluding each chapter.
Once that has happened, the European Parliament and the legislative agendas must approve the resolution, and finally Ukraine will become an EU member state.
The average time it takes to join the EU is four years and 10 months, according to the think tank UK in a Changing Europe. However, some Member States in Eastern Europe have had to wait as long as 10 years.
On top of a lengthy and complicated process, there are also political considerations that could thwart Ukraine’s European dream.
Not all Member States are enthusiastic about Ukraine being considered for membership of the bloc. Therefore, it is likely that one or more at each stage will be tempted to throw a screw in the works to get a concession on something else that the EU is debating – such as the allocation of EU money.
France and Germany and Hungary have been less than full neck in their support. It was only after a visit to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, that the leaders of France, Germany and Italy announced that they would support Ukraine’s candidate status. Hungary has also dragged its feet for various reasons, though especially because it is Russia’s biggest ally in the EU.
Some European countries have also been criticized by Zelensky for not supplying enough weapons, as Ukraine is in the middle of a desperate struggle to defend the Luhansk region in the eastern part of the country.
The reasons for their hesitation range from concerns about corruption to a shift of power from the western part of the bloc to the east if Ukraine is occupied. There is also concern about how much of the EU budget Ukraine can eat up.
While all member states have supported the candidacy, there are still more opportunities for leaders to dig in the heels in the coming years.
Ukraine’s long journey to the EU has only just begun. Its candidate status could be a moral victory and send a loud message to Russia. But the reality is that Ukraine now – largely alone – has to make reforms that would be tough enough in the best of times, let alone while under invasion by a foreign army.