Ukraine is a step away from EU candidate status: what's next, and how long until full membership?

17 June, 06:14 PM
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Ursula von der Leyen announces European Commission decision to recommend Ukraine candidate for EU membership, June 17, 2022 (Photo:Janis Laizans / REUTERS)

Ursula von der Leyen announces European Commission decision to recommend Ukraine candidate for EU membership, June 17, 2022 (Photo:Janis Laizans / REUTERS)

Ukraine has moved unprecedentedly quickly from applying for EU membership to obtaining the European Commission's official recommendation to grant Ukraine candidate status. The decision was announced on Friday, June 17.

"Ukraine is a European state which has given ample proof of its adherence to the values on which the European Union is founded," the recommendation says.

"The commission, therefore, recommends that Ukraine be granted candidate status on the understanding that it takes a number of specific steps."

The final decision to grant the status will have to be approved by all 27 member states at the European Council summit on June 23-24.

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The leaders of the most influential EU countries, France, Germany, Italy, as well as the president of Romania, during a visit to Kyiv on June 16b spoke in support of such a step.

"My colleagues and I came to Kyiv with a clear message: Ukraine belongs to the European family. An important milestone on the European path is candidate status for accession to the European Union. In the European Council, I will unequivocally stand for a single position (to grant Ukraine such a status)," said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Even before French President Emmanuel Macron, Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi visited Kyiv, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had twice visited Ukraine since the full-scale Russian invasion began.

During her first visit in early April, she handed over a questionnaire to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Ukraine's meeting the Copenhagen criteria for becoming an EU member candidate. During her visit in June, von der Leyen said that the European Commission was finalizing recommendations for granting Ukraine such a status and announcing a positive decision on June 17.

The European Parliament on June 8 backed a resolution calling for Ukraine to become a candidate for EU membership "as a clear political signal of solidarity with the people of Ukraine." Some 438 MEP voted for the document, 65 voted against, and 94 abstained.

However, even if Ukraine receives candidate status this month, it will have several more stages to join the EU. Candidates usually spend a lot of time going through them. While Polish President Andrzej Duda, for example, supports a fast-track path to Ukraine's EU membership, other European leaders, including German Chancellor Scholz and French President Macron, say it has to be a matter of months and years. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also says that Ukraine cannot join the European Union immediately without going through all the necessary procedures.

NV looks at what steps are still ahead of Ukraine on the path to EU membership, and how much time, based on the experience of other countries, it may take.

What is the standard procedure for joining the European Union, and at what stage is Ukraine?

1. As a rule, the path to accession begins with an Association Agreement. Such an agreement between Ukraine and the EU came into full force in September 2017 – 10 years after the start of negotiations on its conclusion. This document of more than 1,000 pages clearly regulates the gradual economic and political rapprochement of Ukraine with the European Union.

2. In the next step, the candidate country submits an application for membership to the Council of the European Union (the highest legislative body of the EU). According to Article 49 of the EU Treaty, this can be done by any European country that respects and undertakes to respect the democratic values of the union. President Zelensky signed an application for Ukraine's accession to the EU on Feb. 28, 2022, noting that the country is requesting immediate accession under a new special procedure.

3. Upon receipt of the application, the EU authorities decide to start its consideration, and the European Commission (the union's highest executive body) develops and sends a questionnaire to the applicant country on compliance with the Copenhagen criteria. It usually takes several months or years to complete. For example, Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for admission in February 2016, received a questionnaire in December, and returned it completed only in February 2018. However, in the case of Ukraine, this procedure was accelerated thanks to an agreement between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and President Zelensky on a "fast track."

After receiving the questionnaire on April 8, the Ukrainian leader submited answers to its first part to the European Union Delegation to Ukraine in 10 days, and the second part was sent to the European Commission on May 9.

4. Next, after reviewing the completed questionnaire, the European Commission was to provide an opinion on the country's ability to be a candidate for EU membership. The European Council then recognizes the country as a candidate for accession and decides to start accession negotiations. This decision must be taken unanimously by all member states. This is exactly the decision Ukraine is currently waiting for, it may be adopted at the summit on June 23-24, 2022.

5. The EU accession negotiations are held at the governmental level and are aimed at bringing the legislation and standards of the candidate country in full compliance with EU law. They are structured according to the acquis (translated from French – "achievements" or "acquisitions") – a set of legislative acts, political documents and practices of their application that exist in the EU. The acquis consists of six clusters, which in turn are divided into 31 chapters, and negotiations are held on each of them. The chapters, for example, include justice, financial control, free movement of capital, taxation, customs union, energy, transport policy, etc. The closure of negotiations on each chapter must be approved by the member states, and only then the negotiators can move onto the next chapter.

However, according to the current rules, the start of negotiations does not guarantee that after their completion, the candidate country will receive the status of a member of the Union. Since 2020, the European Union has reserved the right to suspend or restart negotiations if the results in some areas are unsatisfactory.

It is the stage of negotiations that is usually the longest and takes several years, experts say.

6. Following the negotiations, the European Commission concludes that the candidate country is ready to become a member of the EU. Based on this conclusion, the EU member states must decide to close the negotiation process. This decision must be taken unanimously by the European Council, as well as by an absolute majority of the European Parliament.

7. Finally, the candidate country and the EU member states sign and ratify the Accession Treaty. The Accession Treaty shall specify the date on which the member state acquires membership.

How long have other countries taken to join the EU, and what are Ukraine's chances of doing so faster?

The Union of European Countries, which originated with the European Coal and Steel Community, was founded in 1952 and formed the European Union in 1992. The union has gone through several stages of expansion. As a result, the number of its members increased from six to 27. The largest enlargements, both in terms of the number of acceding countries and the number of new citizens, took place in 2004, when Cyprus, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined the EU.

Currently, four countries, namely Albania, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, have EU candidate status. Since 1999, Turkey has also been a candidate country. However, talks with this country, which began in 2005, have been halted by political differences and criticism from Brussels over Ankara's violation of human rights and democratic standards.

Based on the experience of current EU members, it usually takes about 10 years from the time of submitting application to accession. For example, Poland applied in 1994 and became a full member of the EU only in 2004. In the case of Bulgaria and Romania, the path from application to accession took 12 years, and Cyprus took 14 years to join the EU. The Baltic countries such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were preparing for accession for nine years.

After Russia's invasion of Ukraine, President Zelensky called for the start of Ukraine's immediate EU accession process. However, the bloc's agreements do not provide for an accelerated procedure.

"The European Union can do nothing without criteria. We have all signed agreements, there are preconditions that must be met," said von der Leyen in an interview with German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

The full-fledged process of Ukraine's accession to the EU may take some time, former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski said in an interview with NV. But politically it is extremely important. Although some reforms cannot be implemented during hostilities, the parliament took some steps before the war to prepare for accession, and this work is underway.

"You have really done a lot," Kwasniewski said.

"I understand how everyone is waiting for specific dates for Ukraine's accessionto the EU. But today the speed of this process is largely in the hands of Ukraineitself, which can both speed up and slow down this process. But I'm sure that Ukraine will become a member of the EU, sooner or later, the only question is to work hard on this issue and, of course, to understand when this difficult and dramatic war ends."

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