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Ukraine is on track for EU candidate status. What does this actually mean?

7 cards
  • What happened?
  • Does this clear the way for Ukraine to join the EU?
  • Does candidate status guarantee Ukraine’s eventual entry into the EU? 
  • Why can’t the EU just accept Ukraine’s membership application?
  • Will Ukraine definitely be given candidate status?
  • Are there EU countries that don’t support Ukraine’s candidacy?
  • How has Moscow responded to Ukraine’s recent steps toward EU membership?

What happened?

On June 16, the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, and Romania met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv. During the visit, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that the visiting leaders all support giving Ukraine “immediate” candidate status to join the European Union. 

The next day, the European Commission formally recommended EU candidate status for Ukraine, as well as Moldova. The Commission also recommended that Georgia be given a “European perspective” and be granted candidate status once it fulfils certain conditions. 

“The Commission’s opinions mark an inflection point in our relations. Indeed, this is a historic day for the people of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. We are confirming that they belong, in due time, in the European Union. The next steps are now in the hands of our Member States,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen when announcing the decision.


Does this clear the way for Ukraine to join the EU?

No, Ukraine is still a far cry from EU membership.

Ukraine presented its application for EU membership four days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24. Kyiv then completed its EU membership questionnaire with record-breaking speed, submitting it in just a month. Now that the European Commission has made its recommendation, the final decision on Ukraine’s candidate status lies with the 27 leaders of the bloc’s member states, who sit on the European Council. 

The European Council is set to consider Ukraine’s application at a summit in Brussels on June 23–24. Granting Ukraine candidate status will require unanimous approval. 


Does candidate status guarantee Ukraine’s eventual entry into the EU? 

Not necessarily. Turkey, for example, has been a candidate country since 1999 and is still a long way from joining the EU. The list doesn’t end there either: North Macedonia has been a candidate since 2005, Montenegro since 2007, and Serbia and Albania since 2009. 

Even the European Commission’s recommendation on EU candidate status for Ukraine was based on an “understanding” that the country will carry out major reforms. In fact, European politicians and diplomats estimate that Ukraine’s full integration into the EU will take at least a decade or two. In May, France’s European Affairs Minister said that Ukraine’s bid to join the bloc would take at least “15 or 20 years.”


Why can’t the EU just accept Ukraine’s membership application?

At the moment, Ukraine doesn’t meet the rigorous conditions for membership to the EU (European politicians have talked about this directly). Candidate status, however, is a different matter. Speaking to Meduza, German parliamentarian Johannes Schraps (who is a staunch supporter of Ukraine’s accession to the EU) described this status as “not even a step, but simply a turn towards the European Union.” 

Recognizing Ukraine as a candidate country will cost the Europeans almost nothing, but it will send a positive signal to Kyiv. And this in itself is progress for Ukraine. In the past, the very idea of making this “symbolic gesture” provoked strong backlash within the EU. In 2016–2017, for example, the Netherlands refused to ratify the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement until it was amended to stipulate that it did not constitute a commitment to conferring candidate status on Ukraine or to providing financial and military assistance to Kyiv. 

Needless to say, Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine has changed everything. Five years ago, less than half of EU citizens supported Ukraine’s accession to the bloc. In the months since Russia began its invasion, support for Ukraine joining the EU has surged to 66 percent. And 80 percent of EU citizens approve of the financial assistance provided to Ukraine. 


Will Ukraine definitely be given candidate status?

There are no guarantees, but it seems very likely. On June 20, Bloomberg reported that the European Council is expected to give Ukraine’s candidate status the green light. However, since any final decision will have to be unanimous, we can’t rule out the possibility of last-minute surprises.


Are there EU countries that don’t support Ukraine’s candidacy?

Politico reported last week that at least three countries were still opposed to recognizing Ukraine as a candidate country. However, according to Bloomberg’s sources, “nobody opposed the decision” during a meeting of EU ambassadors on June 20. 

According to past reports, there was skepticism from Germany and France, as well as Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Portugal. However, both German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron expressed clear support for Ukraine during their visit to Kyiv on June 16. Following the European Commission’s recommendation, it appears as though EU countries want to demonstrate unity and not give Russia the satisfaction of seeing discord in their ranks.

At the same time, the prospect of adding new EU candidate countries raises serious questions about the stalled accession of countries in the Western Balkans (many of which became candidates more than a decade ago and long after the end of bloody wars in the region). Enlargement in the Western Balkans was a priority for the EU until recently, and a shift in focus toward Ukraine could stir up discontent. 


How has Moscow responded to Ukraine’s recent steps toward EU membership?

In the past, Moscow appeared far more concerned with the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO. But against the backdrop of Western weapons deliveries to Ukraine and tightening sanctions against Russia, Russian officials have changed their tune. 

In May, Russia’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Dmitry Polyanskiy said that Moscow sees Ukraine’s entry into the EU as equivalent to joining NATO. In turn, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the bloc of transforming from a “constructive economic platform” into “an aggressive, militant player that is already declaring its ambitions far beyond the European continent.” 

That said, Moscow has a tendency to change its rhetoric and declared goals, so it’s difficult to say how Ukraine receiving candidate status will change the course of the war and diplomatic relations.

Explainer by Dmitry Bachedin

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart

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