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A speedy EU enlargement? Ukraine’s path to the EU

For the past month and a half, Ukraine has been defending itself from the Russian invasion. On April 8, Ursula von der Leyen visited the war-torn country, and pledged to support the country’s speedier path to accession to the European Union. While it is not in her power to accept new Member States to the Union, von der Leyen’s political support matters.

However, the process of joining the EU itself is lengthy, and on average takes around 5 years to complete the procedures and meet sufficient – and rigorous – criteria. The process for Poland, which is similar to Ukraine in communist legacy and population, lasted 10 years from applying for membership in 1994 to the 2004 enlargement. And the timing was much less tumulus, with peace and institutional stability. So far, Ukraine has submitted a formal application and is awaiting the Commission's opinion. This step may take up to 18 months, but senior EU officials say it can be accelerated if there is the political will. With a favourable opinion, and a unanimous vote of the 27 Member States in favour, Ukraine will be given the status of candidate country. Then, the laborious part begins: the negotiations on aligning laws with the European Union’s legal framework, which currently consists of 35 chapters. And Ukraine would have to prove that it already aligned its laws with the chapters, or will have by the time of accession. While there is room for flexibility for a country to adapt, it is discussed in the final stages of negotiations. Once all the chapters are closed, the accession treaty, which needs the EU-27 and European Parliament approval, is prepared, signed and ratified.

The remaining question is whether the process be sped up for Ukraine? The key to answer this question is the political will of all parties involved. Yet, not all parties may be as determined as Volodymyr Zelenskyy to change EU27 to EU28. While we have seen a very united front in the matter of comprehensive sanctions (in fact the 6th round was rolled out just the other day), will the bloc be as united concerning a potential new member? As Europe is far and wide, so are the opinions on enlargement across European Union countries. And not only across governments, but also across citizens. While there is support for Ukraine joining the EU among large EU countries, Europeans remain unconvinced that it should happen immediately. They worry about their respective countries’ security, and disagree on the idea of creating a joint EU army (here the stance varies depending on being a NATO member). Central European countries tend to favour the possible Ukrainian accession to the bloc most, and call for the support and opening the process of negotiations under a new special procedure. Western leaders do not welcome the idea so warmly, and the European Council has already declared that they will proceed only without delay.

On the Ukrainian part, Zelenskiy completed a questionnaire and handed it to the EU’s envoy to Ukraine, which marked the beginning of the lengthy process of admission to the bloc. Kiev holds a firm belief “that this procedure (granting the candidate status) will take place in the coming weeks”, with the expectations that Ukraine will be granted candidate status during the June Council meeting.

Weighing in on the possibility of acceleration of the EU enlargement process

For the past 30 years, the length of the process of accession to the EU has gradually increased, among others as a result of the increasing amount of reforms that need to be implemented by the candidate countries. There seems to be an “enlargement fatigue”. And there are still countries queuing to join the club; Western Balkans are not moving any further, after being vetoed by certain Member States. The situation does not seem to be looking any better for Turkey, yet it may be subject to change, as it emerged as a strategic ally during the recent crisis. But Turkey has been on the waitlist since 1999. Recently, Turkey’s leaders expressed their willingness to return to the enlargement negotiations with Brussels. Turkish Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Faruk Kaymakcı, stated that “In the face of the Russian aggression, we have seen the need for a strong Europe and Turkey,” and even made a claim that if Turkey were a member of the EU, the war in Ukraine could have been avoided as “no other candidate country can contribute more to the EU, in terms of security and defence, foreign policy, energy security, economy, migration management, harmony, stability and global actorness”.

While Turkish officials yield support for Ukraine’s attempt to become an EU candidate country, Kaymacı praised not only Ukraine’s efforts, but also Georgian and Moldovan, however, concluded that there should not be a fast track. Russian aggression in Ukraine for Turkey is of concern, as it could significantly disturb the division of influence in the Black Sea region. The country seems to be again leaning towards pro-European sentiment, which was disrupted in 2019. But Ankara could also feel offended by fast-tracking Ukraine’s application to the European Union, and that could cost the bloc a valuable ally – one wishing to mediate the war, having amicable relations with both parties.

Has Russian aggression achieved the exact opposite of what it aimed? Instead of spreading fear and detachment, as the country threatened nuclear war, it seems to have only drawn European nations closer. If the EU decides to grant Ukraine a candidate status, there will be expectations from Western Balkans and Turkey. There is an opportunity to conclude yet another unification. May we witness a new, possibly bigger than expected, enlargement, comprising Ukraine, Turkey, and the Balkans? Possibly. The prospects are not gloomy as long as there is political will, but it may take longer than Ukraine would hope to.

The process definitely will not happen overnight, yet, we still have the prospects of a new, somewhat fast-tracked enlargement. How it will look like in the end, we are yet to see.


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