Ukrainian EU Accession Remains 'Many Years' Away

Ukraine has passed through the initial stages of the European Union accession process in record time. It submitted a membership application on February 28 and could receive a formal acceptance of its candidacy as early as June 23-24, when the European Council meets to discuss a range of issues.

However, even if a decision is made to grant Ukraine formal candidate status, the full accession process could drag on past the end of this decade.

"Steps that usually take months, if not years, have been made in a matter of days and weeks," Pierre Morcos, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Newsweek. "It is a signal from Brussels that it is ready to move relatively fast, but the negotiation process will necessarily be long."

Although Finland's 1995 accession to the bloc took just under three years from application to membership, the same process for Croatia's entrance in 2013 took 10 years. Given Ukraine's clear need to reform its judicial system and to adopt legislation bringing the country in line with European standards, there is every reason to believe that full acceptance, which requires the unanimous approval of all 27 current member states, remains a medium-term prospect at best.

"For the moment, the critical thing is to send a political signal to Kyiv," Morcos said. "France and Germany want to use the prospect of membership as leverage to help Ukraine reform itself. And that is actually in the interest of Ukraine."

EU & Zelensky 20-APR-22
President of the European Council Charles Michel (L) shares a moment with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky during a press conference following their talks in Kyiv on April 20, 2022. Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Morcos sees gradual integration as the best way to ensure that Ukraine make necessary progress while maintaining a geopolitical orientation towards the West.

"For this reason, French president Emmanuel Macron came up with the idea of a European 'political community,' which would foster cooperation between the EU and Ukraine on key questions in parallel with the membership negotiation process," Morcos said. "The goal is to manage expectations while getting a head start on integrating Kyiv into the bloc."

While some politicians in the Ukrainian capital might be disappointed to hear that their country's armed defense of European values is not sufficient for immediate acceptance into the formal European club, Ukrainian analysts largely agree with Morcos's conclusions.

"The process is even more important than the final result," Sergiy Sydorenko, editor of the Kyiv-based media outlet European Pravda, told Newsweek. "Quite a few Ukrainian members of parliament say the opposite, that we need to have membership first and then we will make reforms, but it just doesn't work that way."

He noted that joining the EU is overwhelmingly popular.

"There is nearly a consensus in Ukrainian society in support of EU membership," Sydorenko said, "over 90% in favor. This is even higher than in most of the actual member states."

He is confident that Ukrainian society understands the reality of a drawn-out accession process, and that it will continue to support European integration despite the waiting time.

"In late February and early March, when there were quite a few European leaders saying that Ukrainian membership should be fast-tracked, it did create an unrealistic expectation in society," Sydorenko said. "But Ukrainian people now understand that the process is longer, and public surveys show that many expect accession in five to ten years instead of a year or two. This change did not harm public support for membership, and I don't expect it to create any sort of controversy in public opinion."

Even if Ukraine's EU candidacy is unlikely to serve as a cause for domestic discord, it still harbors the potential to foster divisions within Europe itself.

"For the eastern member states, the fate of Ukraine is a matter of their own security," Dr. Kristi Raik, Director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, told Newsweek. "Among those countries that have been under Russian domination or occupation in living memory, there is more of a sense of moral support for Ukraine."

"In Western Europe," she added, "it's not an existential issue."

Raik sees the upcoming European Council summit as a key inflection point.

"If the body fails to take a positive decision in June for Ukraine," she said, "I think it would be very demoralizing both within Ukraine and in EU members that see Ukrainian accession as a critical geopolitical necessity."

"Ukraine is a very special case," Raik added. "We agree that it is fighting not only for its own freedom, but also for European values and security."

Despite the moral factors working in favor of Ukraine's ultimate accession, she sees little use in speculating about timelines.

"It's really very difficult to predict," Raik said. "It will take many years."