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Making The Impossible Possible: What Would It Take For Ukraine To Join The EU?

Making The Impossible Possible: What Would It Take For Ukraine To Join The EU?
 Georgina Wright
Resident Senior Fellow and Deputy Director for International Studies

What seemed impossible a week ago has become possible. 

Rarely has the EU expressed such solidarity and unity so quickly. Three days into the war and the EU has imposed two sanctions packages, a no fly-zone for Russian aircrafts and agreed to a €1.2 billion aid package. It has said Ukrainians can live in the EU for up to 3 years without applying for asylum. Meanwhile, member states are sending weapons, equipment and financial support to Ukraine. 

It now faces another test of unity: how to respond to the Ukrainian President Zelensky’s formal request to join the EU. Let’s be clear: even if the EU did declare Ukraine a candidate country, EU membership would be a long way off. But it would be hugely symbolic and a signal to Kyiv that if it survives this war, its future is with the EU. 

The 2014 EU-Ukraine Association Agreement

The EU’s relationship with Ukraine was close - even before the crisis began. In 1994, the European Communities signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Ukraine to strengthen political and economic ties between the parties. 

The EU’s relationship with Ukraine was close - even before the crisis began.

In 2014, Ukrainian President Porochenko ratified the EU-Ukrainian Association Agreement - after his pro-Russian government predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign it. Ukraine is also part of the EU’s 2003 European Neighbourhood Policy and the 2009 Eastern Partnership which initially brought together the EU and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine (though Belarus suspended its participation in June 2021).

The Association Agreement, which is fully in place since 2017, effectively sees Ukraine adopting most of the EU’s acquis (in other words, the EU’s full body of law) in return for greater economic, political and social relations with the EU. The Association Agreement includes a deep and comprehensive trade agreement which, as the name indicates, gives Ukraine greater and easier access to the EU’s single market. It has been provisionally applied since 2016 and will be fully applied once all EU member states have ratified it. In 2019, Ukraine’s exports to the EU, mainly raw materials, chemical products and machinery, amounted to €19.1 bn and EU exports to Ukraine amounted to €24.2 bn. Since 2017, Ukrainians can also travel to the EU visa-free.

Becoming a candidate country

Becoming a member of the EU is complex process. First, Ukraine would need to formally submit a request to join the EU. The EU Commission would then be responsible for reviewing the application. Ukraine formally submitted its application in the evening of Monday, February 28.

In their application, candidate countries must demonstrate that they share European values and that they are able to absorb most of the EU’s acquis. For example, they must prove they have sound institutions, a robust system of checks and balances and a functioning and resilient market economy.

(The 2014 EU-Ukraine Association Agreement was partly designed to help Ukraine achieve this). Once the EU Commission has finished its review, EU capitals and the EU parliament must agree to formally start negotiations. This requires unanimous approval in the Council (the grouping of the 27 member states) and majority support in the European Parliament. 

Ukraine formally submitted its application in the evening of Monday 28 February.

This first stage of the process can take anything between several months and several years - though in theory, the EU could decide to speed this up for Ukraine if it wanted to.

Conducting and concluding accession talks

Then come the negotiations themselves. These are structured in 35 "Chapters", each covering a distinct aspect of EU membership (single market, environment, social policy, etc). Several chapters being negotiated negotiated at one time. As part of the acquis, a new EU member state must join Schengen and adopt the euro - though both of these can be phased in over time. 

The length of negotiations varies. Finland took two years to negotiate its accession. Conversely, Turkey formally requested to join the EU in 1987 and has been in accession talks since 2004 - though negotiations were halted in 2018. There are many reasons for this. Some member states, like France, believe the EU should resolve internal problems and tensions before welcoming new members.

Another reason had to do with Turkey’s population size of 84 million. In the EU, a member state’s voting weight in the Council depends on the size of its population (though numbers are not strictly proportional). This doesn’t matter when unanimity voting is concerned, but it does when the Council uses majority voting for new single market regulations for example. Similarly, countries with the largest populations have more seats in the European Parliament. If Ukraine joined, it would be the fifth largest country in the EU after Germany, France, Spain and Italy.

Once negotiations are over, both parties sign the agreement. They need to ratify the agreement before it can come into force. For the EU, this means unanimity in Council and majority vote in the EU Parliament. Since the Lisbon Treaty, all member-states are required to ratify the deal, in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements. Today, most national parliaments would be required to vote. France may need to organise a referendum. Some regional parliaments may also need to vote: this is the case in Belgium for example.

Sending a strong political message 

The prospect of Ukraine joining the EU seems remote - but for the first time, it also feels plausible. That matters and carries huge political significance.

Thousands of Ukrainians are fighting for independence, liberal democracy and freedom in Ukraine, but also in Europe. Granting Ukraine candidate status would be a small victory in a future that is shrouded in doubt. 

This article was written with the help of Cecilia Vidotto Labastie and Gwendoline de Boé of Institut Montaigne’s Europe program.


Copyright: François WALSCHAERTS / AFP

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