Ukraine’s hopes for EU membership grow after bloc leaders approve candidate status

“Today marks a decisive step on your path to the EU,” European Council President Charles Michel tweeted after the talks in Brussels. The leaders also agreed to approve Moldova’s candidacy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he “sincerely endorses” the decision of the European Council, calling it “a unique and historic moment in relations between the EU and Ukraine.”

The decision, taken at the EU Council summit, came a week after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that, in the opinion of the bloc’s executive body, Ukraine deserves candidate status, as it “clearly demonstrated the country’s aspiration and determination to live up to European values ​​and standards.”

However, it will most likely be years before Ukraine can join the EU. The process is lengthy and requires the consent of 27 Member States at almost every stage. This means that there are many opportunities for Member States to use their veto power as a political bargaining chip.

Before Ukraine can begin talks to join the bloc, it must first meet the Copenhagen Criteria, a trio of opaque requirements that focus on whether the country has a functioning market economy; whether its institutions are capable of supporting European values ​​such as human rights and the EU’s interpretation of the rule of law; and whether it has a functioning inclusive democracy.

It is unlikely that Ukraine will be able to meet these criteria while the country is at war, but von der Leyen admitted that she began to achieve them long before the invasion.

Once these criteria are met and all member states agree to start negotiations on the 35 negotiating parts – from trade to law to civil society – Ukraine will have to undertake internal reforms to meet the required standards in each of these areas. Again, all Member States must agree that these requirements have been met before closing each chapter.

Once this happens, the European Parliament and the legislature must approve the decision, and finally Ukraine will become an EU member state.

According to the UK think tank in a changing Europe, the average time it takes to join the EU is four years and 10 months. However, some Member States in Eastern Europe had to wait as long as 10 years.

In addition to the long and difficult process, there are also political considerations that could get in the way of Ukraine’s European dream.

Not all member states are thrilled that Ukraine is being considered for joining the bloc. So it is likely that at every stage one or more will be tempted to throw a wrench into the job to get a concession on something else that the EU is negotiating, such as EU money.

France, Germany and Hungary were not entirely in their support. Only after a visit to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the leaders of France, Germany and Italy announced that they would support the status of Ukraine’s candidate. Hungary has also been slow for various reasons, but primarily because it is Russia’s biggest ally in the EU.

Some European countries have also been criticized by Zelenskiy for not providing enough weapons as Ukraine is in the midst of a desperate battle to defend the Luhansk region in the country’s east.

The reasons for their hesitation range from fears of corruption to a shift in power from the west of the bloc to the east if Ukraine is admitted. There are also concerns about how much of the EU budget Ukraine could eat.

While all Member States supported the candidacy, there are still plenty of opportunities for leaders to take the lead in the coming years.

Ukraine’s long journey to the EU has just begun. Candidate status could be a moral victory and send a loud signal to Russia. But the reality is that Ukraine now has to – largely on its own – implement reforms that would be difficult enough in better times, not to mention the invasion of a foreign army.