Ukraine and Moldova have been granted official candidate status to the European Union, with the same promise to Georgia once it has addressed its "outstanding priorities".
The announcement – after the first day of the European Council's two-day summit in Brussels on June 23 – did not come as a surprise, as none of the EU's 27 member states opposed the decision at a meeting earlier this week. Even the leaders of Germany and France, who previously received criticism for their perceived lack of support, backed Ukraine’s candidate status during a trip to Kyiv on June 16.
"This decision strengthens us all", President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said. "It strengthens Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, in the face of Russian imperialism. And it strengthens the EU. Because it shows once again to the world that we are united and strong in the face of external threats."
“Now is the time to acknowledge that the future of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia lies within the EU,” European Council President Charles Michel wrote in a letter inviting the leaders to the summit.
The decision is a massive boost to Ukraine and Moldova, though a disappointment for Georgia, which dropped out of the "Trio" because of the ruling Georgian Dream Party's erosion of democratic norms.
In Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy responded to the decision by tweeting: "It's a unique and historical moment in [Ukraine-EU] relations. Grateful to Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen and EU leaders' support. Ukraine's future is within the EU."
Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba said: "Ukraine will prevail. Europe will prevail. Today marks the beginning of a long journey we will walk together."
However, the reaction from ordinary Ukrainians has been mixed, with many wondering what impact the decision will make in the midst of a war in which Ukraine is struggling to get enough armaments.
“I used to really want to see Ukraine as part of the European Union. But looking at how slowly Europe is helping arm Ukraine in such a difficult war, where many innocent people are dying, it becomes very sad,” Nick, a photographer from Bucha, told bne IntelliNews. “But still, if security requires an alliance, it is clear it should be with Europe.”
"I think it's an awkward attempt of the EU to make things right," said Valeria, a tech worker from Kyiv. "We've been fed with way too many promises that can't be fulfilled and us having candidate status feels just like more diplomatic talk. It's more of a promise than an actual plan for action."
Others feel that EU candidate status is Ukraine’s right and even the goal of many Ukrainians in this war.
“Candidate status is neither a gift nor a debt. We paid the price for it. As a result, we’ll become the first and only country whose citizens have given their lives for EU membership,” Tania, a PR consultant from Chernivtsi, told bne IntelliNews. "The status will also deepen our faith that Ukraine will become a member of the EU, a member of the Eurofamily,” she added.
For some, EU membership is a no-brainer and the obvious path for Ukraine. “We should join for more political stability. I think everyone in Ukraine will answer the same now,” said Aleksandr, a student from Kyiv.
Moscow has previously condemned Ukraine’s relationship with the EU, saying it sees Ukraine’s entry in the Bloc as equivalent to joining Nato. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claims the union has turned from being a “constructive economic platform” into “an aggressive, militant player that is already declaring its ambitions far beyond the European continent.”
Ukraine presented its application for EU membership only four days after Russia’s invasion on February 24. Kyiv filled out the questionnaire in just over a month, a speed that reflected the urgency of the request.
EU candidate status and membership are key points in Ukraine’s economic roadmap to recovery outlined by Minister of Economy Yulia Svyrydenko. According to Svyrydenko, full membership will give Ukraine crucial access to the EU's structural funds. She also emphasised that Ukraine should have access to the EU and G7 markets to help manufacturers integrate into global supply chains and increase exports to help recover from Russia's devastating aggression.
"EU candidate status will give a push to a new trajectory of GDP growth while providing a huge morale boost for post-war economic transformation and reform. Moreover, this step sends a positive signal to investors that Ukraine is moving in the right direction," American Chamber of Commerce President Andy Hunder told Interfax-Ukraine, Ukraine Business News reported.
However, although now a step closer to achieving its goal, several EU states, predominantly France and Germany, remain sceptical about Ukraine’s membership, with Paris warning that it may take decades. French President Emmanuel Macron had earlier suggested that a second-class membership category be created for Ukraine that acknowledges its European aspirations, but stops short of admitting it to the club and granting it the freedoms of movement of labour, capital and goods, as well as access to the billions of euros in funds that comes with membership.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also said recently that the bloc must change its voting rules in key areas such as foreign policy before accepting any new members.
However, Kyiv has found ardent supporters in Central and Eastern Europe, especially Poland, which has vocally backed Ukraine’s membership.
“Today, Ukraine needs our signal: the opening of European doors for Ukraine as a state, for Ukrainian society, that wants to be part of the European community, not Russia’s sphere of influence,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said last month. “Countries striving for the European Union should receive a clear signal that the doors to the EU are open.”
Long road ahead
The accession process takes years. Since 1992, no country has managed to pass it faster than in 8 years, and most often it took 9-10 years to complete it.
Now there are five countries in the status of candidates - Turkey (a candidate since 1999), North Macedonia (since 2005), Montenegro (since 2010), Serbia (since 2012) and Albania (since 2014). Croatia became the last new member of the EU in 2013, waiting for approval of the application for 10.5 years.
And the reason for the Balkans’ pique is the EU has clearly rushed through Ukraine’s application. The country applied for EU membership only days after the war started, submitting its form on February 28 and now has been granted candidate status in June less than four months later. Usually, the first stage alone takes years.
Kyiv has not been idle in its ambitions to join the European trade club and has already made a start on some of the reforms. The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said that by now Kyiv has brought its legislation and law enforcement practices in line with EU standards by about 70%. “Important work that still needs to be done” concerns the rule of law, oligarchs, the fight against corruption and basic civil rights.
Corruption remains the main bugbear. In the latest Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, Ukraine ranked 122nd (Russia — 136th). That makes the judicial reforms a top priority as Ukraine’s courts are venally corrupt. Among the specific measures that Kyiv will need to take are a new procedure for electing a constitutional court and bringing anti-money laundering legislation in line with FATF standards, writes Bloomberg. Obviously, the necessary reforms are unlikely to begin before the end of the war.
Kyiv will need to follow several steps before beginning full accession negotiations. These include:
• Implementing legislation on a selection procedure for judges of the constitutional court;
• Finalising integrity vetting of candidates for various judicial councils;
• Strengthening the fight against corruption, including via the appointment of a new head of the Specialised Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office;
• Ensuring that anti-money laundering legislation is in compliance with the standards of the Financial Action Task Force;
• Implementing anti-oligarch legislation;
• Tackling the influence of vested interests by adopting a new media law aligned with EU media directives;
• Finalising reforms of the legal framework for national minorities.
The EU will monitor Ukraine’s progress and publish a report in the new year.
However, it is likely that Ukraine will be stuck in the waiting room for a long time, even once it begins full accession negotiations. This decision from the EU has been seen as a highly symbolic one, without costing the bloc anything in return.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, pointing to the Western Balkans, warned Ukraine to expect a frustrating wait:
“North Macedonia is a candidate since 17 years, Albania since eight, so welcome to Ukraine, it’s a good thing to give candidate status but I hope the Ukrainian people will not [have] many illusions”, Rama told Kyiv after the West Balkan Summit before the European Council meeting on June 23.
Despite the general perception the Kremlin opposes Ukraine’s membership, the opposite is true. Russian diplomats consistently say that Russia is opposed because the EU is no longer an economic union, but "an aggressive player that is merging with NATO."
Russia’s objection has always been that it is happy for Ukraine to expand its trade regime, but as Russia also shares a border with Ukraine Russia’s trade interest should also be taken into account and so any talks on Ukraine joining the EU should be done in conjunction with Russia. Brussels pointedly refused this proposal and signed off on the Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTA) with Ukraine at a time when Russia had an open border with Ukraine, which has been a major source of conflict. Because of Brussels’ lack of willingness to include Moscow in the trade talks the border was closed and trade between Ukraine and Russia – formerly its biggest trade partner – has collapsed.