Why EU membership may not be easy for Ukraine

It was an impassioned plea: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky this week called for his country to join the European Unionthe largest trading bloc in the world, which has also helped preserve peace in Europe for decades.

“We have proven that at the very least we are exactly like you,” he told the European Parliament on Tuesday. “So prove you’re with us, prove you won’t let us go, prove you’re Europeans.” A day earlier, he had filed an official request for Ukraine to join the union, whose headquarters are in Brussels, the Belgian capital.

As Russian forces force their way into Ukraine, Mr Zelensky’s request was warmly welcomed by Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, who proclaimed on Monday that Ukraine is ” one of us and we want them in the European Union”. Union.”

However, his words of encouragement were largely symbolic, and Mr. Zelensky’s European aspirations are unlikely to be met any time soon: joining the bloc is a laborious and arduous process that can take up to a decade.

Poland, for example, applied formally to join the bloc in 1994 and was finally admitted in 2004.

To join, a country needs its application to be unanimously approved by all EU member states, which now number 27. It must also make its political, judicial and economic system compatible with the bloc in adopting the common law system of the EU, as well as over 80,000 pages of rules and regulations on everything from environmental standards to food hygiene rules.

A senior EU official explained that it can take up to 18 months for the European Commission to assess a country’s application before it is forwarded to member countries.

And while there are precedents for acceleration – Sweden and Finland managed to join the Union a few years after applying – a quick approach is rare. In addition, other countries have been waiting for years to join, including Albania, Bosnia and Serbia, which makes it difficult for the EU to move faster on Ukraine.

Beyond that, the EU is also suffering from expansion fatigue after being rocked by the economic crises, Brexit and the pandemic, as well as the misbehavior of rule-breaking member countries like Hungary.

For the moment, Ukraine has not been designated as an official candidate, but has instead concluded an Association Agreement with the EU, signed in 2014 and concluded in 2017, in which it agreed to intensify economic ties and policies with the bloc.

Ukrainians have been eager to forge closer ties with Europe, and in 2013 hundreds of thousands of them took to the streets to protest when then-President Viktor F. Yanukovych, who leaning towards Russia, backtracked on signing an association agreement with the union.

Whatever challenges Ukraine’s EU hopefuls face, Russia’s aggression has sparked an outpouring of solidarity in the bloc, resulting in some of the toughest sanctions in its history. Eastern and central European countries like Poland and the Baltics, which lived for decades behind the Iron Curtain and where memories of Russian subjugation run deep, were among the most enthusiastic in supporting membership. from Ukraine.

Most Europeans welcomed the EU’s eastward expansion in May 2004, when the bloc admitted 10 mostly former communist nations – including the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland – because , among other reasons, it cemented the demise of the Soviet bloc and helped spread economic and political liberalism across the continent.

The ability of the European Union to offer membership to a country has been one of its greatest foreign policy tools in the post-Cold War world. The prospect of membership has motivated Bulgaria and Romania to fight corruption and hastened the arrest of war criminals in Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro.

Although Ukraine’s EU accession process is expected to be gradual, the country’s attempt to forge closer ties with NATO and the European Union underscores that President Vladimir V. Putin’s attempt to bring Ukraine by force into Russia’s orbit seems to have the opposite effect.

Steven Erlanger and Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting.