Ukraine’s EU application: A new paradigm for EU Enlargement?

It’s terrible to lie in chains,
To rot in dungeon deep,
But it’s still worse, when you are free,
To sleep, and sleep, and sleep.

            Taras Shevchenko, ‘The Days Go By’, 1845

On 28 February 2022, just days after Russia launched its war of aggression against Ukraine, Kyiv formally requested a fast-track procedure to become a candidate country for European Union (EU) membership.  The request was warmly received by many EU leaders and the European Parliament. On Tuesday, 1 March 2022, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in support of granting Ukraine candidate status, and on 10-11 March the matter was discussed at an Informal European Council Summit in Paris, where EU leaders acknowledged the “European choice of Ukraine”, while stopping short of endorsing fast-tracked membership for the country.

Of course, it might be argued that, as Russian forces are threatening to encircle and capture Kyiv, this is not the best time for Ukraine to apply for EU membership. Yet, it could also be seen as appropriate when one considers, as many Ukrainians do, that Ukraine is now on the front-line of protecting the European system and European values.

Ukrainian accession: Changing attitudes

In the summer of 2014, at the height of Russian aggression in Donbass in Eastern Ukraine, a German Marshall Fund poll showed that 52% of Europeans were in favour of Ukraine's accession to the EU. Around two-thirds also said that the EU should provide economic and political support for Ukraine even if it causes a confrontation with Russia. Pro-Ukraine sentiment in the EU was already strong before Russian-backed rebels shot down the MH17 passenger jet on 17 July 2014, and before Russia invaded mainland Ukraine in April of that year.

The average level of support in the EU would have been even higher if not for German popular opinion at the time, which took a more sceptical view of Ukraine’s European prospects, with 63% saying they were against Ukraine's accession to the EU.

Now, however, opinion appears to have changed even in Germany. On 6 March 2022, two weeks after the Russian Federation began its renewed invasion of Ukraine, more than 100,000 people gathered in the city center in Berlin to support Ukraine.

Indeed, the level of political and public support and sympathy for Ukraine in all EU countries, aided by the efforts of Ukraine’s charismatic President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is now at unprecedented levels. Last week, Czech President Milos Zeman signed a joint letter from eight EU Heads of State or Government that called for Ukraine to be afforded an accelerated process of accession to the EU. On Tuesday 1 March, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, until recently a symbol of anti-Ukrainian rhetoric in the EU, joined the initiative, saying his government fully supports the idea of  offering Ukraine the prospect of EU membership in the near future. Taoiseach Micheál Martin has also expressed his support for Ukraine’s candidacy.

Lasting achievements

Today, inside of Ukraine, support for accession to the EU has risen to its highest ever levels. A poll of Ukrainian citizens published on 1 March 2022 shows a 20% increase in support for EU membership compared to the pre-war period. This is due in large part to a surge in support for accession among the population of the south and east of the country – in total, 86% of Ukrainians now support membership. Notably, there is majority support for Ukraine's accession to the EU across all age groups.

Yet, according to the basic principles of EU enlargement policy, a candidate country must meet a range of stringent conditions set down in the Maastricht convergence criteria. Any successful candidate must be a stable democracy and must have a functioning market economy. New members must also incorporate all existing EU rules and regulations into their domestic legal framework, including when it comes to antitrust rules, the effectiveness of the justice system, consumer and investor´ protection, and much more.

In this context, the assessment of the implementation of the 2014 EU-Ukraine Association Agreement has demonstrated Ukraine´s ability to implement rigorous reforms. Alhough there is much work still to be done, Ukraine has already taken significant strides in the direction of convergence with the EU acquis communautaire. The Ukrainian authorities have developed a framework to strengthen domestic banking supervision and recapitalisation rules. Several troubled private banks have been nationalised and are now profitable and more are in progress. The Ukrainian energy sector is also gradually liberalising. Reforms are expected to support investment in aging power and transmission infrastructure, and investment in renewable energy is also increasing.

Thus, much has been done by Ukraine to align with the EU’s acquis communautaire, in particular to remove technical barriers to trade and improve public procurement practices, statistics and information exchange, taxation, consumer protection, and telecommunications. In other areas of economic and political sensitivity, such as when it comes to justice, competition and battling corruption, the Association Agreement served as a basis - and a motivation - for facilitating reform. Furthermore, Ukraine has an ambition to bring itself closer to the EU Digital Single Market and to Europe's Green Deal policy by transposing the relevant acquis by 2022-2023.

In the context of the Association Agreement, the approximation of Ukraine’s energy market towards the EU energy market started in 2017. Since then, Ukraine’s electricity grid has been tested a number of times as part of preparations for joining the EU electricity grid. The process was originally foreseen to be completed in 2023.

In comments after a meeting of the Commission for Coordination of the Implementation of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU earlier this year, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denis Shmygal declared that the Association Agreement is 63% implemented. Indeed, around 92 governmental acts and 55 bills are to be passed in 2022 in order to bring Ukraine nearer to its goal of EU convergence.

All this means that Ukraine has established multifaceted linkages to the EU and has been making far-reaching structural reforms to bring the country closer to the standards of the EU common market long before the war began.

A new paradigm of EU enlargement: “Special track” integration?

On Thursday 10 March and Friday 11 March 2022, an EU summit of Heads of State or Government met to discuss key issues in EU defence and enlargement policies. The meeting in the Palace of Versailles, Paris, was originally planned to focus on Europe's economic post-pandemic recovery.

Member States also examined the question of Ukraine’s formal application to join the EU. Kyiv hoped for a fast-track procedure, but at a minimum for Ukraine to be granted candidate status and for a date to be set for the start of full accession negotiations. Ultimately, the Summit stopped short of recommending a fast-track accession procedure, but acknowledged Ukraine’s European aspirations and invited the Commission to submit an opinion:

The Council has acted swiftly and invited the Commission to submit its opinion on this application in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Treaties. Pending this and without delay, we will further strengthen our bonds and deepen our partnership to support Ukraine in pursuing its European path. Ukraine belongs to our European family.

Procedurally speaking, the next step will be for the Commission to begin a review process that includes a detailed examination of Ukrainian national law to determine how well it currently complies with EU law. The optimal end result of this would be for accession negotiations, led by the Commission, to begin immediately.

It is a strange twist of fate that, under the present circumstances, one barrier to Ukraine’s EU integration has already been broken down: the EU has, essentially, implemented one of the fundamental four freedoms of the EU for Ukrainian citizens – having de facto granted Ukrainians the freedom movement in the Union (albeit in a limited form). Amid Europe's largest refugee crisis of this century, the EU has an unanticipated window of opportunity for a new relationship to be formed with the people of its neighborhood. The next step might be to let not only Ukrainian citizens, but also Ukraine, join the EU.

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