Will the European Union Admit Ukraine?
On the process and probability of the EU granting Zelensky’s request.
If Vladimir Putin’s aim in ordering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was to reverse the latter state’s diplomatic drift toward Europe and the West, he has so far been remarkably unsuccessful. Ukraine’s staunch resistance against its predatory neighbor has won it the sympathies of nations around the world, and Europe in particular has punched back at Russia with far fiercer economic measures than many anticipated.
So when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last week petitioned the European Union to accept Ukraine as a member, it wasn’t surprising that European officials responded with messages of solidarity.
“Ukraine and its people are family,” European Council President Charles Michel tweeted Saturday. “Further concrete support is on its way.” Ukraine is “one of us,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told Euronews Sunday, “and we want them in the European Union.”
It was a powerful message, widely shared by Ukraine’s cheerleaders online. But whether it will be anything more than that—a powerful diplomatic message—remains to be seen.
Here’s something that almost certainly won’t happen: The EU is unlikely to acquiesce to Zelensky’s request for Ukraine’s “immediate accession [into the Union] under a new special procedure,” a move that would be not only new but completely unprecedented. Joining the European Union is no small thing; it requires unanimous approval from the 27 current member states. Countries must also meet criteria that assess their functioning as democracies with stable governing institutions and a free-market economy—criteria it is hard to argue any state currently engaged in a war for survival could meet. Most notably, countries must also put all binding EU rules and regulations on their own government books—a process that usually takes many years. Poland, for instance, applied for membership in April 1994 and was confirmed by EU member states that December—but did not finally accede to the Union until 2004.
As far as the current war against Russia is concerned, in other words, talk of possible accession doesn’t mean European armed forces will soon be rushing to Ukraine’s aid. (They might not even if Ukraine were instantly admitted—more on this in a minute.)
Ukraine is not approaching the work of possible EU admission from a standing start, of course. The state has been inching toward rapprochement with Europe for the last two decades, but particularly since the 2014 revolution in which protesters overthrew the government and ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, whom they saw as unacceptably pro-Russian. Ukraine does not have full access to the European single market—which provides frictionless trade among the EU member countries and several other European states—but since 2017 it has enjoyed a strong trade agreement with the EU, under which both sides have worked to eliminate trade tariffs. Also in 2017, the EU authorized Ukrainians to travel within Europe visa-free for short periods—up to 90 days within any 180-day period. Although this visa waiver is not supposed to permit Ukrainians to work in the EU, in practice it has made unofficial short-term work arrangements for Ukrainians common in states such as Poland.
And as James Brooke of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies tells The Dispatch, Ukraine is already a few years into the work of bringing its laws into compliance with EU membership requirements.
“Almost every ministry in Kyiv has had an EU unit embedded inside them,” Brooke said. “And this EU unit is bringing them up to EU rules and regulations. It’s a lot of work—I mean, we’re talking about maybe 10,000 rules and regulations.”
So EU membership for Ukraine, far from being a switch that Europe can flip to address Russia’s invasion (like economic sanctions), is a huge undertaking that will play out on a scale of years or even decades rather than days. And some experts caution that it would be a mistake for Europe to decide such things in a burst of wartime enthusiasm—particularly since European solidarity for the plight of Ukraine might ebb if the conflict slows and grows cold and domestic pain from Russian sanctions grows clearer.
“My fear is that this solidarity could prove temporary,” Pawel Zerka, a policy fellow and expert on the EU and Poland at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Dispatch. “It is clear that you are solidary with Ukrainians when you see war just beyond your borders, war in which there is one clear offender and one society which is defending itself, and the offender, the aggressor, is behaving in a way where women and children are casualties. So it’s easy to be solidary with Ukraine right now; it’s even easy to open up Europe to refugees from Ukraine.”
“But imagine that this conflict lasts longer,” he went on. “There will be economic effects of that war, because sanctions on Russia means that many businesses in Europe can no longer trade with Russia. There is a risk that energy prices will increase even farther, especially if Russia decides to stop or limit its supplies of energy on which Europeans are still often pretty dependent.”
As the shock of war recedes, it’s possible that preexisting structural obstacles to Ukrainian accession will loom larger as well. Ukraine is a large nation—of the EU countries, only Germany, France, Italy, and Spain are more populous—meaning it would instantly become a major player in EU parliamentary affairs upon admittance. It is also quite poor, which means it would be eligible for development spending from the EU’s Cohesion Fund should it be admitted.
Still, it seems likely that—barring a total Russian victory in Ukraine leading to regime change in Kyiv—Russia’s assault has both made eventual EU membership for Zelensky’s government both more likely and sped up its timetable. Meanwhile, the whole affair highlights a quirk of Vladimir Putin’s attempt to influence the diplomacy of the region: The Russian autocrat has spent far more time and energy in public fretting over his neighbors joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization than who has entered the EU.
In many respects, of course, this makes sense: NATO is first and foremost a defensive military alliance, while the EU is predominantly a political and economic union. And crucially, NATO includes one major foe to Putin that the EU does not: the United States of America.
Still, Europe’s sudden turn away from uneasy cooperation with the Kremlin toward staunch economic combat against it suggests Putin may have been wrong to discount the EU. It’s no NATO, but the EU’s governing treaty does contain a suggestion of an obligation of mutual defense: “If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power.”
Experts caution that this clause is vague and has never been tested in practice—in fact, it even contains a carveout to absolve historically neutral countries like Sweden from any suggestion of obligation of military support (the provision, it says, “shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States”). But we’ve seen this week that a united Europe can do plenty of damage, and offer plenty of help, even if the aid and assistance offered is economic in nature.
In light of all this, what should we finally make of recent mutual pronouncements of solidarity between Europe and Ukraine?
“For the moment, I see it as political declaration, but with the developments on the ground it can become a real perspective,” Zerka said. “Things are moving very quickly in Europe. The EU for the past week has proved to be capable of doing things that nobody expected it to do, starting with those swift and bold sanctions. So why not a major restructuring of the EU?”