At the beginning of the Russian invasion, the European Union showed unanimous support for Ukraine. An economic aid program was also announced to rebuild the country after the damages caused by the Russian armed forces. However, two things must be taken into account: the complexity of the accession process and the EU’s perspective. Therefore, it is unlikely that Ukraine will join the EU in the short or medium term, although other types of association are possible. Although the European Commission delivered an accession questionnaire ( to Ukraine, both the EU and Ukrainian President are aware that this is merely a symbolic gesture and carries little practical significance.
In this article, we will explore why Ukraine’s membership in the European Union is currently not feasible, both legally and based on the experience of other recent integration processes. In a blog post, we will delve into the EU accession process and whether Ukraine’s situation makes it possible. Spoiler alert: the answer is no.
However, it is clear that Ukraine faces a daunting task in becoming part of the European club, for three reasons.
1)The EU’s willingness to support Ukraine’s accession is limited, as we will explain in this article.
2) The experience of EU enlargement shows that there are no shortcuts to joining the union. Finally, even if peace were to prevail in Ukraine, the country’s current situation falls far short of meeting the minimum requirements for the EU to initiate negotiations. As we noted at the outset, the EU has announced a program to rebuild damaged civilian infrastructure, housing, and other essential services. Nonetheless, this is merely the starting point, as Ukraine still needs to strengthen its rule of law and deepen its democracy standards. Even if every destroyed building is rebuilt, there remains a tremendous amount of work to be done. Nevertheless, before we discuss the EU’s attitude toward Ukraine, we must consider several factors that make it clear why the EU is not very receptive to Ukraine’s accession at present.
3) The language used by the EU is always very “diplomatic”: characterized by ambiguity and carefully measuring what is said so as not to get caught or commit to words. In their reports to the Western Balkan countries, the EU says it «approves of this», «takes note of that», «praises this», and «welcomes that», which could mean «okay, you’re doing your homework, but that’s it.» Sometimes they «encourage» or even worse, «remind», which translates to «do this right now» or «we’re going to have a problem,» respectively.
The rule of thumb is that it’s not recommended to import conflicts. In other words, if the highly unlikely immediate incorporation of Ukraine into the EU were to happen, it would automatically be at war with Russia. Let’s face it: we are at war with Russia, whether it’s called the Third World War or the War-as-you-want-to-call-it, as the six packages of sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU, US, and other states are hostile “acts of war”.
Moreover, war today is not like in 1914, where armed conflicts involved extensive bombing campaigns and close-combat fighting with bayonets; wars now take different forms, such as economic sanctions or cyberattacks that hack into government websites or «share» intelligence secrets – among other things – or the EU or US sending arms and training Ukrainian soldiers since 2014. But, anyway: one thing is to hack into the Russian Defense Ministry and another is to send troops into Ukraine. There is a precedent – among others – of importing conflicts by the EU: the accession of Cyprus. However, it should be noted that Cyprus has been in a state of political turmoil since the division between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in 1974, with ongoing tensions and occasional outbreaks of violence. The Turkish army’s occupation of almost forty per cent of the island has been a contentious issue, with the international community largely recognizing the territory as occupied and condemning the actions of the Turkish military. While the situation in Cyprus may not involve the Russian army bombing cities and infrastructure, it remains a complex and unresolved conflict that has yet to be fully resolved.
4) The so-called «enlargement fatigue«. The EU has been experiencing what’s commonly referred to as «enlargement fatigue.» Prior to 1995, there were no issues with the EU’s expansion efforts. Denmark, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom joined in the 1970s, and Greece, Spain, and Portugal joined in the 1980s. In 1995, Austria, Finland, and Sweden became members.
However, problems began with the massive 2004 expansion when the former Eastern bloc countries, including Poland and Hungary, joined the EU. These countries, in particular, have been the most skeptical of the EU and have questioned its fundamental principles. Bulgaria and Romania, which also joined in 2007, barely met the membership requirements and are still being closely monitored by the EU (Cooperation and Verification Mechanism). This caution has led to the EU becoming more stringent in its monitoring of membership criteria, causing delays in the accession process for countries such as Serbia and Montenegro (the “New methodology” introduced by the EU. As you might expect, this is not a good thing; basically, it means (returning to the diplomatic language we mentioned earlier): I am going to apply the brakes: in other words: being stricter in the criteria for accession.
Everyone by now probably knows that the current President of Ukraine starred in a series called «Servant of the People» in 2016 (curiously, the name of the party with which he ran – and won – the real-world elections in 2019). In that series, the character played by Zelensky was accidentally elected President of Ukraine. The President receives a call from Angela Merkel, who informs him that his country has been admitted to the EU (it doesn’t work that way, but it’s just a series). However, it’s a misunderstanding: the German Chancellor thought she was calling Montenegro. To give you an idea, that republic is one of the candidates closest to becoming a member state… and it still has a long way to go.
5. The slow and complicated process of integration into the EU for any state that aspires to membership excludes the possibility of Ukraine skipping steps or years of EU requirements and procedures. This would create a creates a sense of comparative grievance: The most advanced countries on the path to accession, such as Serbia and Montenegro, have been trying to approach and suffering constant delays for a decade. Let’s take an example: Serbia formally requested entry into the EU in 2009. It did not receive official candidate status until 2013. Even so, negotiations for accession did not begin until 2014. They have been negotiating for seven years and there are still a lot of negotiations to come. The situation in Ukraine in this sense is definitively worse. The integration process, especially for the WB6, will be addressed in another post for comparison purposes. In any case, what the EU is saying now is that “well, you can have all the support and empathy you want, but without reforms in the democratic standards and rule of law spheres (among others), it’s no way. We don’t want to cause any offence to the countries that have been seeking EU membership for years…not to heaven as Bob Dylan sang and Guns and Roses covered, but pretty close.
Finally, and as previously mentioned, Ukraine’s situation -before the war- was a real mess, with one of the highest corruption rates in Europe -second only to Russia- and with the most basic democratic and rule of law standards at a minimum, compounded by the ubiquitous presence of organized crime. All of this makes it deserving of a resounding rejection from the EU.
With all of this in mind, we won’t be seeing an EU-28 with Ukraine inside anytime soon.
This article was first published in April 2022 on the «Mentes Inquietas» blog.