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Ukraine's path towards EU and when to expect membership: Two years after application

Ukraine's path towards EU and when to expect membership: Two years after application President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of the European Council Charles Michel (photo: Getty Images)

How far Ukraine has progressed on the path to European integration since Russia's full-scale war, what will be its next steps on the way to the EU, how long this path may take, and what problems Brussels and Kyiv will face - read in the RBC-Ukraine article.

Sources used: public statements by officials of Ukraine and the European Union, official EU websites, and comments by Hennadii Maksak, Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Council "Ukrainian Prism".

Exactly two years ago, on February 28, 2022, Ukraine officially applied to join the European Union. At the time, on the fifth day of the full-scale war, European integration did not seem to be the number one priority: there was no certainty that Ukraine would survive, a huge convoy of Russian equipment was moving towards Kyiv, the city itself was hit by missile attacks, and France evacuated its embassy from the capital to Lviv the same day.

But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was proving the importance of Ukraine's membership in the EU by saying that Ukraine was defending the whole of Europe from Russian aggressors. At the time, the Ukrainian authorities also insisted on an accelerated process of joining the EU under a kind of "special procedure" that had to be applied due to the exceptional circumstances the country was facing.

However, Brussels and other European capitals quickly made it clear that military and financial assistance to Ukraine is one thing, but its admission to the European club is quite another. And no one would make any exceptions for Ukraine; in any case, Kyiv would have to go through the entire process that a potential EU member should go through.

For some time after the application was submitted, it seemed that there would be no question of any exceptions for Ukraine, or even of a maximum-favored-nation regime for a country at war. And the application itself would remain stalled for a long time.

For example, French President Emmanuel Macron was skeptical about Ukraine's European integration prospects, and he did so publicly. Germany and the Netherlands were also among the skeptics, and Austria and even Denmark and Sweden were named among the countries that could block Ukraine's candidate status.

However, Ukraine's real European integration process has not only begun but has proceeded at an incredible speed for Europe although not as fast as Kyiv initially wanted.

June breakthrough

The turning point occurred in mid-June 2022, when Kyiv was visited by the most powerful European delegation at that time during a full-scale war: Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis.

They brought important news - Ukraine would be granted the status of a candidate country for accession to the European Union. By that time, Macron had already radically changed his position on this issue, turning from a skeptic to a lobbyist for Ukraine's European integration, and managed to allay the fears of Germany and other countries.

However, Ukraine's candidacy was to some extent an advance, with the European Commission adding seven requirements that Kyiv had to fulfill to make further progress: from judicial reform to new legislation on media and national minorities.

The Ukrainian authorities reported they were ready to fulfill the requirements as soon as possible, in just a few months. In practice, this process was expected to be delayed until the end of 2023.

The last obstacle to Ukraine's candidacy was Hungary and Prime Minister Viktor Orban personally, who kept coming up with new explanations as to why Ukraine should not be granted this status. As a result, after systematic and prolonged pressure on Orban from a number of his European colleagues and leaders of the European Union itself, the Hungarian Prime Minister gave in.

Ukraine's path towards EU and when to expect membership: Two years after applicationRuslan Stefanchuk, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and Denys Shmyhal after signing the EU membership application (photo:

Chancellor Scholz's diplomatic maneuver at the decisive European Council meeting on December 14 when he invited Orban to "go for coffee," thereby "removing" him from the room during the decisive vote will go down in modern political history. As a result, in less than two years, Ukraine has gone from applying to obtaining candidate status, a feat that even Kyiv's European sympathizers did not expect. But there is an even longer way to go.

35 directions

At the moment, Ukraine is at the stage preceding the actual start of accession negotiations. The European Commission is currently preparing a so-called "negotiation framework" and is simultaneously conducting a "screening" (analysis) of current Ukrainian legislation. By the way, the parallelism of processes to speed them up is an innovation applied specifically in the case of Ukraine, and it can be interpreted in its way as a "special procedure" that was discussed two years ago.

The process of joining the European Union is much more formalized than, for example, joining NATO. In the case of the EU, a political decision to accept a new country is not enough - it must also adapt its legislation to EU law, otherwise, in practice, EU membership will not work.

For example, Ukraine has to work on 35 areas of law (the so-called "acquis communautaire") at once, from the judicial system to fishing, from education to foreign policy. For each of these items, negotiations will be opened and closed when the EU considers that all the tasks set for Ukraine in a particular area have already been fulfilled.

The negotiation framework will determine the format and pace of this process, including the so-called "benchmarks" - the results that Ukraine will have to achieve in changing its legislation.

Initially, it was said that the negotiation framework would be approved in mid-March, after which an intergovernmental conference would be held, de facto the beginning of the EU accession negotiations.

Last week, a statement by the head of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen made a lot of noise. She said that the negotiation framework was likely to be approved not in March, but in the summer after the June elections to the European Parliament. According to some media outlets, these words caused serious surprise in the European Union itself, and RBC-Ukraine's interlocutors in Kyiv had a similar reaction.

However, a few days later, during her visit to the Ukrainian capital on February 24, the second anniversary of the full-scale Russian invasion, von der Leyen effectively denounced her previous statement, indicating that the European Commission would propose a negotiating framework in due course, in mid-March.

Benchmark is 2030

The process of negotiating accession to the EU is tense but very bureaucratic, the content of which will not be easy to convey to a wide audience, especially in Ukraine. The only clear "victory" that the government will be able to present in a favorable light is the successful closure of the next chapters of the acquis communautaire.

However, this will require a unanimous decision by all current EU members. Consequently, Hungary will constantly exercise its veto power - more than seventy times in total during the negotiation process, allowing Viktor Orban to blackmail both Kyiv and Brussels again and again.

Another important nuance is that although the accession negotiations by default involve two parties, Ukraine and the EU itself, they cannot be called equal participants. Since it is Ukraine that wants to join the EU, it will have to fulfill Brussels' requirements in any case, otherwise, the process will automatically stop. We will be talking about thousands of legal norms, and all EU conditions will have to be fulfilled; it will not be possible to choose the "more favorable" ones and ignore the rest.

Obviously, in the course of the process, discontent will regularly arise from entire sectors of the national economy, which will have to adapt to a new, not always more profitable legal reality. However, all countries that have joined the European Union have gone through this process in the past - the overall benefits of European integration on a country-wide scale still outweigh the costs.

The start of the negotiation process does not come at the best time in terms of the political situation. The main destabilizing factor is the June elections to the European Parliament, which could bring some unpleasant surprises to Ukraine and Europe, such as the growing influence of far-right populists, and Euro- and Ukraine-skeptics.

After the elections, a new European Commission will be formed, which also implies some turbulence. However, as of now, von der Leyen's chances of retaining her seat look quite high, which is positive news for Ukraine - the current head of the European Commission is pro-Ukrainian, and, according to RBC-Ukraine's interlocutors who have spoken to her, she is sincere.

Another potentially problematic factor is that in the second half of 2024, the EU Council presidency will be held by perhaps the least convenient member for us, Hungary, which will allow Orban to at least more actively influence the pan-European agenda.

Ukraine's path towards EU and when to expect membership: Two years after applicationThe European Commission building (photo: Getty Images)

According to Hennadii Maksak, executive director of the Foreign Policy Council "Ukrainian Prism," it is quite possible that both the approval of the negotiation framework and the first intergovernmental conference will take place in March-April. However, the expert says, there is a risk that the conference will be delayed and will take place after the European elections.

As for the negotiation process itself, Maksak sees a serious potential problem in the methodology for assessing the country's fulfillment of the necessary conditions, which was updated in 2020. "The new methodology is designed not to facilitate the negotiation process, but rather to put up certain obstacles," the expert says. In particular, we are talking about perhaps the most important cluster of the acquis communautaire, the so-called "fundamentals", which include norms related to basic human rights, justice, security, etc.

Clarifying the methodology, in particular, setting exhaustive criteria for Ukraine's fulfillment of the required parameters (so that after certain reforms in these areas it does not turn out that Brussels wanted something else from Kyiv) is one of the key current tasks of the European Commission in the preparation of the negotiation framework.

In general, in addition to completing the actual "homework" on reforms, Ukraine will need the political will in the EU countries to ensure that they do not artificially delay our European integration. According to Hennadii Maksak, it is impossible to say which of these two components - reforms in Ukraine and goodwill in the EU - may become a bigger problem for us.

"I think we can implement European norms quickly, but there will be pitfalls that will not be immediately visible to us. In addition, in the process of rapid implementation, it is important not to lose touch with our society - with the fact that it may lose something in the process and not be told about it, for example, this concerns access to certain markets," the expert believes.

Sectoral protests against new EU rules and regulations regularly erupt across the EU, even in countries that have been members for decades, while Ukraine is a country that is just beginning the process of global transformation.

The current protests of Polish farmers and their blocking of the border with Ukraine are perhaps just a demo version of what Ukraine may face when the real negotiation process on EU accession begins. And various Eastern European populist politicians will also get a great opportunity for speculation: they say that after Ukraine joins the EU, the money intended for a conditional Warsaw or Bratislava will go to Kyiv. Hungary's Orban is already actively using this argument.

Thus, the path to Ukraine's ultimate goal of full membership in the European Union does not look easy. And it is unlikely to be quick. Previously, the Ukrainian government had voiced a two-year timeframe for Ukraine to be ready for EU membership. Recently, such unequivocal predictions have been made less frequently.

On the European side, however, they are generally very careful about any specific deadlines, as European Council President Charles Michel cautiously stated that Ukraine "could" become an EU member in 2030, but only if "both sides do their homework."

Obviously, as in other aspects of Ukrainian life, the end of the war will be an extremely important factor for European integration (of course, taking into account the conditions under which it will take place). The idea that a warring Ukraine cannot join the EU is often voiced in the European media space. However, the methodical adaptation of Ukrainian legislation to European law is a feasible task for the authorities, even in the current circumstances.