Ukraine is set to become an official candidate for EU membership, here’s what that means


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Ukraine is set to become an official candidate for European Union membership, according to ministers and diplomats, in a symbolic but morale-boosting decision after Russia’s invasion.

EU leaders in Brussels are expected to sign off on last week’s recommendation by the European Commission, the EU executive.

After several days of internal EU discussions, no opposition among the 27 member states has surfaced, three diplomats said.

“We are working towards the point where we tell Russian President Vladimir that Ukraine belongs to Europe, that we will also defend the values that Ukraine defends,” Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told reporters before a meeting with other EU ministers.

But what would actually happen if Ukraine joined the European Union? Here’s a rundown of what a possible membership would look like. 

How does the process work?

The candidacy is the beginning of a process that requires extensive reforms to conform with a host of standards, ranging from judicial policy to financial services and food safety.

Still, the EU decision puts Kyiv on course to realise an aspiration that would have been out of reach just months ago. 

The process consists of several steps, including adopting all of the European Union’s laws and regulations. This normally takes a number of years. 

Lastly, the candidate signs an accession treaty, which all of the other EU countries have to approve. 


What happens if Ukraine joins the European Union?

The European Union is a mostly economic and political organisation, not a military alliance like NATO is.

This means membership would not necessarily see EU member states directly take up arms in the war with Russia. 

Still, the membership can make a big economic difference, like it did with Bulgaria and Romania, whose GDP respectively doubled and almost tripled since becoming a part of the EU.

On top of that, there are military benefits. The EU has a mutual defence clause, which states that if an EU country is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, other EU countries have an obligation to aid and assist it by all means in their power.

Although the candidate status is mainly symbolic, the move will help lift national morale at a very difficult time in a four-month conflict that has killed thousands, displaced millions and flattened towns and cities.

If admitted, Ukraine would be the EU’s largest country by area and its fifth-most populous. 

Who supports it?

Aside from the 27 European member states that agreed on Ukraine’s candidacy, US President Joe Biden has also spoken out about possible membership of the war-torn country, saying it is “very likely to happen”.

“Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.

“We want them to live with us the European dream.”

Mrs Von der Leyen was seen wearing colours of the Ukranian flag while discussing Ukraine’s candidate status in Brussels.(Reuters: Yves Herman)

The Dutch government announced it would back Ukraine’s EU candidate status, calling the European Commission’s advice “a smart compromise”.

“[Candidate status] is a correct solution from a moral, economic and security perspective,” Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said alongside French counterpart Emmanuel Macron.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he believed all European Union members would back granting Ukraine EU candidate status, adding: “This is like going into the light from the darkness.”

How did Russia react?

In a grievance-filled speech in St Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin railed at the West and the United States in particular, but sought to play down the EU issue.

“We have nothing against it,” he said.

“It is not a military bloc. It’s the right of any country to join economic union.”

He also questioned whether it was “advisable” for the EU to permit Ukraine to join, saying Kyiv would need huge economic subsidies that other EU members may not be willing to give.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russia was closely following Ukraine’s EU bid, especially in the light of increased defence cooperation among the 27-member bloc.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks
Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to play down the EU issue.(AP: Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik)

What roadblocks are lying ahead?

While the recommendation marks a strategic eastward shift by the EU in the face of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Kyiv would likely take years to become a member of the 27-nation union, if at all.

EU membership after candidacy is not guaranteed — talks have been stalled for years with Turkey, a candidate since 1999.

“Ukraine has already implemented roughly 70 per cent of EU rules, norms and standards. Yet important work remains to be done, on the rule of law, oligarchs, anti-corruption and fundamental rights,” Mrs Von der Leyen said.

On top of that, Ukraine and Moldova, another candidate, are far poorer than existing EU members, with per capita output around half that of the current poorest, Bulgaria.

They also have recent histories of volatile politics, corruption, organised crime and conflicts with Russian-backed separatists.

How likely is it to actually happen soon?

In order to become a member, Ukraine would be required to carry out economic and political reforms and it is unlikely the bloc would take in a country in a state of war.

At times of peace, it took Poland, Ukraine’s neighbour with similar population size and communist history, 10 years from applying for membership in 1994 to actually joining in 2004.

Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania, some of the more recent members, took around 10 years to leave their candidate status, so it might be a while until Ukraine can officially join the union.



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