The president of the European Council, Charles Michel, announced in September 2023 that the EU must be prepared for enlargement by the year 2030. Normally, the EU doesn't say "no" to anyone: if an aspiring country generally meets the accession criteria, it is granted a transition period to adapt to the community acquis, with candidate status.
"As we prepare the EU’s next strategic agenda, we must set ourselves a clear goal. I believe we must be ready — on both sides — by 2030 to enlarge," Michel said to an audience that included the leaders of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, Montenegro and North Macedonia, all official candidates for EU accession, during the Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia in late August.
A spokesperson from the European Commission emphasized the merit-based nature of the enlargement process the following day, stating that "candidates should join the European Union when they meet the necessary criteria."
The geopolitical consequences of Russia's war in Ukraine have prompted the EU to reinvigorate its previously dormant enlargement policy. Countries in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans are increasingly looking towards Brussels for closer integration with the Western world.
Since the onset of the invasion in February 2022, three countries – Ukraine, Moldova, and Bosnia and Herzegovina – have achieved candidate status, while engagement with the other three candidate countries has intensified. Ukraine's journey to membership is considered the most pivotal for shaping a geopolitically significant European Union, but it also presents the most complex political challenges.
On 28 February 2022, Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenski signed an official application for his country’s membership in the EU. In an emotional speech after the brief ceremony, the Kyiv leader argued that the country deserved to be part of the European family, which Ukraine now defends against the Russian aggressors.
It is hard to imagine that anyone in the European Commission would have formally rejected Ukraine's application before the armed conflict with Russia. But would it accept a country embroiled in war in its yard?
Why not NATO?
Signing the EU membership application under fuming guns is an appropriate symbolic gesture, necessary to boost the defenders’ morale, given that from a political-military perspective, the EU cannot effectively help the Ukrainians. The European Union is not exactly a military bloc capable of defending against major external threats like Russia or China, let’s admit the truth, and after the departure of the United Kingdom, a nuclear power, it is even more dependent on the United States for defense.
European NATO members. Credit: mappr.co
Under current circumstances, NATO would be the more relevant structure than the EU for ensuring national security. If we compare the enlargement processes of NATO and the EU, we will see that the vast majority of EU member states joined the EU after being accepted into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Could Ukraine join the EU without becoming a NATO member? Probably yes, especially since there are precedents: Austria, Finland, and Sweden. Finland joined NATO last April, Sweden still negotiates with an opposing member, Turkey.
Only victory paves the way to the EU
To analyze such a perspective, we must assume that Ukrainians will experience scenarios that end well for them. Under the optimistic scenario, Russia suffers defeat in the war, even if President Vladimir Putin remains in power. All other scenarios involve Ukraine's defeat, with partial or total territorial occupation, whether it’s about a temporary ceasefire or a peace agreement preserving the situation. All these scenarios represent serious obstacles to accession.
This is because there is very little chance that EU member countries will willingly become implicit parties to the conflict, importing all its problems and consequences into the court of their voters. Given that the consent of each of the 27 member-states is required – and some of them are obligated to hold referendums on this matter – Ukrainians could be disappointed if it comes to an open vote. Even in spite of sympathies for the courage they’ve demonstrated and the suffering endured during the war.
Imagining Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia in the EU. CreditȘ Wikipedia/NewsCafe
Now that Ukraine is officially a candidate country, it has thus joined the club made of Albania, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia - countries that have made much more progress in terms of reforms compared to Ukraine and are still on the waiting list.
Even Moldova was farther ahead in this regard.
It's hard to say whether Ukraine will be received by 2030, as Mr. Michel suggests. Poland, for example, applied for EU membership in 1994 and was accepted in 2004, over 10 years after submitting the application. In the case of Finland and Sweden, on the other hand, the process was shorter: 3 and 4 years, respectively.
The Association Agreement, still in effect
Currently, Ukraine is both a candidate and an associated country, thanks to the Association Agreement with the EU, which has been in force since September 2017. To date, neither party has conducted a comprehensive assessment of the progress made by the authorities in Kyiv in implementing the clauses of this document, and the war has set the country back by years or even decades in terms of implementing this Agreement.
If, by some miracle, the government in Kyiv manages to implement the Association Agreement or – more likely – the EU accepts, by exception, that the goals set in it cannot be achieved for objective reasons, and Ukraine gets green light to move on, the pre-accession roadmap might contain more and much harsher conditions than the Association Agreement. Just the regulations for aligning with the bloc's standards contain over 80,000 pages, not to mention the compatibility of laws in areas such as politics, judiciary, economy, social, and more.
For comparison, the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement has 2,135 pages. This document is still in force.
We must also consider the treaties that form the basis of the European Union: the Lisbon Treaty (2009), which provides for the division of powers between the EU and the member states; the Maastricht Treaty (1993), which defines political cohesion and collaboration in key areas – documents that were adopted by consensus.
A new member state means a new treaty, new negotiations, new referendums, new conditions, new structures, and new changes.
Membership – a trend or a necessity?
Almost simultaneously with Ukraine, two other former Soviet states – Moldova and Georgia – have submitted membership applications. Being more advanced in implementing Association Agreements than Ukraine in several areas until the war, these two countries only applied for candidate status after seeing President Volodymyr Zelensky with the signed document in hand.
If Ukraine deserves to join the EU, despite failing to comply with the main criteria for accession, why not Moldova or Georgia? If an exception is made for Ukraine but not for Moldova, it truly means doing injustice to Moldovans, especially since most of them are already EU citizens thanks to Romanian passports. Georgia, on the other hand, has made the most progress in aligning with the community acquis but is a distant territory and therefore vulnerable to external factors.
There is also the issue of separatism in all three countries: Russia controls the enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and a part of the Donbas region in Ukraine. The reunification of Crimea with Ukraine, in general, seems to be an almost impossible mission in the near future.
Thus, equal and fair treatment from a political point of view implies either refusing to grant membership to all three or starting negotiations on the elaboration of pre-accession roadmaps, which will be another difficult mission.
And if Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia join together, how should Albania, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia react? Will the European Union be able to absorb all these territories with a total population of over 50 million during such a short time?
Many politicians agree the EU has not fully recovered from the last round of enlargement, with some countries lagging in combating corruption and investing in human capital, say Romania and Bulgaria, and others deviating from the democratic process and the norms upon which the bloc stands – Hungary and Poland.
Not to forget that the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU in 2020 has left trade and political relations in chaos, weakening the EU militarily and financially.
The refugee Issue
Nearly six million Ukrainian citizens have become refugees since Russia invaded their country in February 2022, settling mainly in EU countries. The number of refugees could increase even up to 10 million people, depending on developments on the front lines. This is the largest migration wave in the history of the European Union.
A question begs in this context: What will happen to Ukrainian refugees once the Russian army withdraws from Ukraine, and the country regains its sovereignty? Will refugee status be revoked or maintained? Will Brussels reactivate or forget about the Readmission Agreement (part of the Association Agreement)?
It is easy to assume that a majority of Ukrainians will not return to their homeland, and this will exert additional pressure on European taxpayers, who will also foot the bill for the reconstruction of Ukraine. While the West may fund a possible Marshall Plan for Ukraine, it will expect its citizens to come to work on construction sites.
More to read:
Is Russia preparing for a longer – and bigger – war?
Under these conditions, inevitable tensions may arise between the locals and the newcomers, which will quickly disappoint both parties.
Some readers may recall that a few years ago, the EU closed its doors to tens of thousands of refugees from war-torn and famine-stricken countries in the Middle East and Africa. They weren’t less desperate than Ukrainians are today.
As fighting goes on in Ukraine, few readers remember what happened to the Syrians who got trapped at the Polish border by Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Have they returned home? Have they crossed the EU border? Have they settled in Belarus or Russia?
Regardless of how they reached the EU doorsteps, the Union collided with the principle of helping asylum seekers and refugees from anywhere in the world, and the treatment of Syrian families was entirely different from the treatment of Ukrainian families, even though the circumstances are strikingly similar.
The comparison has a cynical undertone but does not contradict logic.
So, when will Ukraine join the EU?
In light of the arguments we highlighted above, there are several milestones to help answer this question:
Whether the EU is prepared for a new growth remains to be seen at the bloc’s enlargement summit in October and the EU-Western Balkans summit in December.
There are no guarantees that the absorption of six countries succeeds, given the variety of cultural, political and economic backgrounds. Failure will push the bloc into a political and economic turmoil, with long-term consequences.
There’s also another consideration to worry about. Ukraine’s status of EU member will simply infuriate the Kremlin, which may regard it as an “act of aggression” to what it still considers to be Russia’s own backyard. This will mean the de facto end of the Russian imperial dream and Moscow may respond accordingly. Remember the nuclear threats?
The facts described in this text must not be interpreted as suggesting that Ukraine's integration into the EU is unfeasible or undesirable, but rather provide an overview of potential obstacles that may arise in the near future.
From the outset, NewsCafe emphasized that progress toward Ukraine’s integration within the EU will only occur in the event of Kyiv's victory in this war. It is hard to imagine a EU member country involved directly in a war. Putin’s Russia must be defeated first.
We bet Ukraine will not become an EU member any time soon. Maybe later.
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