Input Paper “EU candidate status for Ukraine”

Foto: Pres­i­den­tial Office of Ukraine

As part of our project “Eastern Part­ner­ship Plus” we publish a series of input papers on the topic: Perspec­tives and Pathways to EU Candidate Status for Ukraine, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova.

For Ukraine, Dmytro Shulga analyzes the Political situation and formu­lates his political recom­men­da­tions to decision-makers in Berlin and Brussels as to why the EU should become a geopo­lit­ical actor and grant the trio EU can­di­date status in June.

We are living in histor­ical times for Europe which require histor­ical political decisions. Russian full- scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 marked a definite end of the post-Cold war period in Europe. It’s a historic Zeit­en­wende for Germany and for Europe as a whole.

Imple­menting the long-time aspi­ra­tions of Ukrainian people, on 28 February 2022, on the 5th day of Russia’s full-scale invasion, President V. Zelensky submitted Ukraine’s appli­ca­tion for EU membership.

According to the EU Treaty (Art.49), a European state which respects European values1 may apply to become a member of the EU. The EU member states should make unanimous decisions 2, after consulting the European Commis­sion and the European Parlia­ment.

In practice, first, the EU member states should consider the appli­ca­tion and unan­i­mously decide on granting the applicant a candidate country status. Then, they can also decide to open accession nego­ti­a­tions with the candidate that focus on 35 chapters – specific policy areas with adoption and imple­men­ta­tion of the EU’s body of law (the ‘acquis’). When nego­ti­a­tions are success­fully finalized, an accession treaty should be unan­i­mously concluded.

Following Ukraine’s appli­ca­tion, already on 1 March 2022, the European Parlia­ment provided its opinion of supporting granting EU candidate status to Ukraine. That reso­lu­tion was adopted by an over­whelming majority of 637 MEPs in favour (out of total 705). Then, on 7 March, the EU member states (Council of the EU) requested opinion of the European Commission.

In the Versailles decla­ra­tion of the informal EU summit, 10–11 March 2022, the leaders of the EU member states agreed that ‘pending this [the Commission’s opinion on Ukraine’s appli­ca­tion] 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’.

Subse­quently, following the standard method­ology of preparing its opinion, on 8 April, European Commis­sion asked Ukrainian govern­ment to provide necessary infor­ma­tion by filling in a ques­tion­naire, which Ukrainian govern­ment did on 9 May.

Now, the European Commis­sion is preparing its opinion on Ukraine’s appli­ca­tion, presenting results of analysis of the country’s meeting the political, economic and sectoral member­ship criteria (level of approx­i­ma­tion to the EU’s acquis)3. It is antic­i­pated that the EC opinion will be ready in early June and that it will be positive – i.e. it will recommend to grant Ukraine candidate status.

Following that, the political decision will have to be met by member states at the European Council on 23–24 June. Either they will provide candidate status to Ukraine (and formulate condi­tions for opening accession nego­ti­a­tions) or will not provide it by offering something less (a ‘potential candidate’ status with some precon­di­tions for getting the real candidate status, or just some language on a ‘member­ship perspec­tive’) or will just postpone the decision if there will be no consensus.

Eight reasons why Germany has to support granting EU candidate status to Ukraine

Reason I: Because it is supported by absolute majority of EU citizens, including in Germany.

After the Russian full-scale invasion, public opinion in the EU towards Ukraine has changed dramat­i­cally. A public opinion poll held in March 2022 by the French Jean Jaures foun­da­tion showed support for Ukraine’s entry into the EU at the level of 69% in Germany, 62% in France, 71% in Italy, 91% in Poland. According to the study, in Germany, support for member­ship is as high as 71% among CDU supporters and even higher — 79% — among those of the SPD. Even in eastern Germany, where oppo­si­tion to enlarge­ment tradi­tion­ally runs high, 56% were in favor. Only a majority of AfD supporters remained hostile (59%)4.

The official EU public opinion moni­toring tool, Euro­barom­eter, showed similar results in its survey done in April 2022 at the request of the European Commis­sion. According to this official EU data, 66% of EU citizens support Ukraine’s member­ship in the EU. In Germany, it is 61% support5.

Reason II: Because it’s just a candidate status, it’s not member­ship, and member­ship will take years.

Recog­nizing Ukraine an EU candidate does not mean joining the EU, it just opens a possi­bility for (lengthy) accession nego­ti­a­tions which results are not guaranteed.

There is no ‘fast-track’ or ‘shortcut’ to EU member­ship, there is standard procedure. Ukraine’s expec­ta­tion now is just ‘fast movement through the standard track’. First of all, Ukrainian govern­ment demon­strates its own readiness and capacity to go through all necessary technical steps as fast as possible, and expects the EU to do the same. For example, in the time of war, it took Ukrainian govern­ment just a month to fill in the ques­tion­naire of the European Commis­sion which took previous applicant countries many months (sometimes more than a year) to complete.

Still, it is clear that joining the EU will take years even in the best-/fast-case scenario. In recent history of successful EU enlarge­ments of the past two decades, the period of nego­ti­a­tions, from official opening to successful closing, took from 3 to 6 years6. Plus, it takes 1–2 years for official signa­tures, rati­fi­ca­tions and entering into force. So, even in the best-case scenario of granting candidate status in June 2022 and an early opening of accession nego­ti­a­tions, and their successful conclu­sion, Ukraine will be able to join the EU not earlier than in 5 — 7 years if every­thing goes well.

Reason III: Because Ukraine objec­tively deserves this status by meeting the criteria.

There is a universal consensus in Ukrainian govern­ment as well as civil society that Ukraine deserves EU candidate status not because of some pref­er­en­tial treatment but for objective reasons of having achieved signif­i­cant progress in approx­i­ma­tion to the EU and thus meeting the necessary criteria.

Ukraine started approx­i­ma­tion to the EU acquis more than two decades ago. Before submit­ting EU appli­ca­tion, Ukraine has been imple­menting Asso­ci­a­tion Agreement for 8 years since its signature 2014. This is a very advanced agreement as it already covers the largest majority of EU acquis. By 2017, Ukraine has success­fully imple­mented visa liber­al­iza­tion criteria which helped to set up and launch the whole insti­tu­tional framework of fighting corrup­tion. The Asso­ci­a­tion Agreement’s provi­sions on Deep and Compre­hen­sive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), applied since 2016, foresee a deep level of sectoral inte­gra­tion to the Single Market7. In practical terms it is as if Ukraine has already opened all accession nego­ti­a­tions chapters8.

Progress in imple­menting Asso­ci­a­tion Agreement is subject to regular annual assess­ments by the European Commis­sion, and addi­tional expert eval­u­a­tions have been done in a number of sectors. In 2021, Ukrainian govern­ment and the European Commis­sion conducted a compre­hen­sive assess­ment of the level of attain­ment of all the objec­tives of the Asso­ci­a­tion Agreement. According to Ukrainian government’s esti­ma­tions, 63% of the necessary homework under the Asso­ci­a­tion Agreement has been already imple­mented by the end of 20219.

Though the European Commis­sion did not present its own percentage estimate to compare, but the key indicator was that over 2020–21, European Commis­sion started to prepare a number of decisions on further Ukraine’s sectoral inte­gra­tion to the Single market in recog­ni­tion of the ‘homework’ done by Ukraine under respec­tive Asso­ci­a­tion Agreement’s chapters (on customs, technical regu­la­tions, e- commu­ni­ca­tions, public procure­ment etc.)10.

In the rule of law area, a solid anti-corrup­tion insti­tu­tional framework had been set up and working, and continues to work during wartime. Most prob­lem­atic seemed the courts system, so in 2021, new strategy and legis­la­tion to provide for reform of gover­nance of the judiciary system was adopted and started being imple­mented with EU support – and is being continued now during wartime. Therefore, Ukrainian civil society calls on EU to recognize reform achieve­ments (actually, achieved jointly — with the EU’s support and engage­ment) and to grant Ukraine EU candidate status, which would be the most effective framework for further reform promotion11.

Foto: privat

In fact, because of Asso­ci­a­tion Agreement imple­men­ta­tion moni­toring and eval­u­a­tion done, the European Commis­sion already possessed suffi­cient knowledge of Ukraine before starting reviewing its member­ship appli­ca­tion. Still, it asked Ukrainian govern­ment to respond to a ques­tion­naire of almost the same size as for other recent appli­cants12. In wartime, Ukrainian govern­ment managed to provide responses to the whole ques­tion­naire just in a month (when it took up to a year or even more for other appli­cants to fill in such a ques­tion­naire) and in high-quality (as no follow- up questions were received from the European Commission).

In general, during wartime, Ukraine’s insti­tu­tions demon­strated surpris­ingly high stability and func­tion­ality – and actually, previous approx­i­ma­tion to the EU acquis and policies contributed to this resilience. A good example is successful testing of Ukraine’s elec­tricity system and its eventual full synchro­niza­tion with European ENTSO‑E network in the midst of full- scale war.

To compare, one can look at European Commission’s opinions and the Council’s decisions on candidate status for previous appli­cants. In 1999, Turkey received candidate status while death penalty was still allowed there. In Western Balkans, candi­dates became North Macedonia (2005), Montenegro (2010), Serbia (2012), Albania (2014). Only Bosnia and Herze­govina and Kosovo remain ‘potential candi­dates’ – de facto those not meeting even basic criteria. Kosovo is not recog­nized by all EU member states. Bosnia and Herze­govina, according to European Commission’s opinion (2019), has its consti­tu­tional framework not in line with European standards, and its govern­ment was answering the Commission’s ques­tion­naire for 14 months and was not able to answer it in full.

Thus, there is a strong consensus opinion in Ukraine that the country is already more advanced than ‘potential candi­dates’ and therefore is objec­tively qualified for the status of EU candidate13. It is expected that the European Commission’s opinion will confirm this.

Reason IV: Because Ukrainian society expects this recog­ni­tion of its fight for European values.

Public opinion in Ukraine has been always supportive for EU member­ship. In 2019, the goal of seeking EU member­ship was even enshrined in Ukraine’s Consti­tu­tion. Since the full-scale Russian invasion, the public support for EU member­ship in Ukraine skyrock­eted to 91%14.

There is universal consensus among political elites in the govern­ment and in oppo­si­tion, and among civil society – including watchdog groups which monitor and promote the rule of law reforms, and also including social partners15. Joining the EU has become a part of the current Ukrainian national idea, together with defeating Russian invasion.

There is also a broad under­standing that Ukraine is literally defending the common funda­mental European values of human dignity, freedom and democracy.

Basically, the EU member states will be now taking decision on whether they recognize Ukraine is a European state sharing European values and meeting basic demo­c­ratic and market economy criteria. Ukrainian society is expecting firm ‘yes’ from the EU.

Any scenario of not receiving (full) candidate status in reply to Ukraine’s appli­ca­tion would be met very nega­tively by Ukrainian society. 

Reason V: Because it would send the strongest political signal to Putin that his war is pointless.

Putin attacked Ukraine because it was left in the ‘grey area’ outside EU and NATO. He wanted to stop Ukraine moving towards the West, and to force Kyiv back to Moscow’s ‘sphere of influence’/’Russian world’. Indeed, movement towards NATO member­ship is not feasible for Ukraine during wartime and it’s unclear whether it might mate­ri­alise after the war.

Meanwhile, granting EU candidate status would be a clear recog­ni­tion of Ukraine as a potential future member of the EU. This is a chance for the EU to become a geopo­lit­ical actor and to realize its respon­si­bility for peace and stability on the continent. Putin would have to recognize new reality of Ukraine’s future EU member­ship in the same way as he had to accept Sweden’s and Finland’s appli­ca­tions to NATO. This would help to convince Kremlin to stop the devas­tating war as its political aims will not be achieved anyway.

Reason VI: Because EU candidacy and accession process is the best framework for post-war reconstruction

When gone through the war, Ukraine will have to ‘build back better’ – not to replicate what was destroyed but to build a better country in all senses. EU candidacy and accession process will help to anchor reforms and make them sustain­able throughout poten­tially uneasy post-war period.

It will also help to make efficient use of EU funds for Ukraine’s recon­struc­tion, and provide a framework for strategic design for inte­grating Ukraine’s infra­struc­ture, economy and society to the EU networks. Also, EU candidacy and accession process will help European business to take on oppor­tu­ni­ties of partic­i­pating in this enormous recon­struc­tion effort. And, EU candidate status would help to attract private invest­ments, so less public money from EU or member states’ budgets would be needed.

Reason VII: Because there must be a fair treatment according to one’s own merit.

Ukraine’s and Western Balkans’ inte­gra­tion to the EU are not mutually excluding or competing but absolutely compat­ible tracks. The principle of fair treatment should be applied in EU enlarge­ment policy, when no country should be blocked because of some other’s problems or fault.

Decisions on Ukraine should not be postponed because of some others’ fault — e.g. Bosnia and Herze­govina not being able to amend its consti­tu­tional setup, or EU member states not recog­nizing Kosovo, or Serbia’s pro-Russian govern­ment, or Bulgaria’s block of EU nego­ti­a­tions with North Macedonia etc.

Same goes for the Eastern Trio. On the one hand, there is common interest in real­iza­tion of EU aspi­ra­tions of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. On the other hand, however, each applicant/​candidate should be consid­ered according to one’s own merit in meeting the criteria. That’s fair.

Reason VIII: Because Germany should take a lead­er­ship and build EU consensus.

Though Germany swiftly declared an end to the tradition of Ostpolitik (which was widely seen in Ukraine as appease­ment of Russia) following the invasion, it has been slow and lagging behind others in crucial issues like weapons delivery and sanctions. Up to now, para­dox­i­cally, it is Brexit UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson who cham­pi­oned Europe’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

On EU candidate status for Ukraine, Germany again finds itself as a major stumbling block to that histor­ical European decision. The majority of EU member states are in favour of Ukraine’s  candidate  status,  including11 Central and Eastern European member states who formally called for the accel­er­a­tion of Ukraine’s EU inte­gra­tion 16 . Still, a number of Western European member states  are undecided and looking at what the German position will be.

Histor­ical times require histor­ical decisions, and histor­ical decisions need to be made quickly. Doing too little, too late is a path to the dump of history. The EU’s cred­i­bility and capacity to act will very much depend on Germany now. Its hesi­ta­tion will only badly affect German politi­cians’ image again. On the other hand, one cannot stop the course of history: it is clear that Ukraine will become a candidate and then a member of the EU anyway, sooner or later.

So, German politi­cians’ choice now is whether to be again pushed by others or to take this oppor­tu­nity to show lead­er­ship, to respond to expec­ta­tions and will of their own citizens, to mend ties with Central and Eastern member states, and to build consensus in the EU. The pressing strategic decision on Ukraine’s candidacy can help to remedy the conse­quences of the German foreign policy mistakes of the last decades. Moreover, without exag­ger­a­tion, it can be a key element to provide for a more peaceful, secure, stable and pros­perous future of Europe.

Summary and outlook

Granting Ukraine a candidate status in June 2022 is a logical decision as it will make everyone happy: Ukrainians, Eastern European member states, European Parlia­ment, German citizens and all other European citizens too. Even Western Balkans will be happy, as this would create a momentum to move the otherwise stalled EU enlarge­ment policy. Only Putin will be upset, but will have to accept it and think twice whether it makes any more sense for him to continue the war.

Candidate status will not lead to member­ship in immediate or short-term future – as it is clear that there is no fast track or shortcut, only the standard accession procedure which will take years even if moving fast through it. But which will be very helpful framework for EU engage­ment into post-war recon­struc­tion of Ukraine.

Ukraine deserves the full and uncon­di­tional candidate status now for objec­tively meeting the standard criteria as well as for defending European values against most brutal large-scale aggres­sion in Europe since World War II. Ukrainian society expects the decision from the European Council in June and will not accept as objective or reason­able anything short of full candidate status.

Part of that decision should be formu­la­tion of time­frames and condi­tions for the next step – opening accession nego­ti­a­tions. Here, outstanding reform issues may be iden­ti­fied as part of condi­tion­ality – but after, not before, candidate status is granted.

Opening and conducting accession nego­ti­a­tions will take time. So, the EU should offer concrete tangible short-term steps to bring Ukraine closer to the EU and provide immediate benefits to its popu­la­tion through increasing inte­gra­tion into the EU Single Market along the lines of the Asso­ci­a­tion Agreement.

On the other hand, the EU could use this momentum to recon­sider enlarge­ment method­ology – e.g. fair treatment (‘regatta’) principle; reversibility in case of setbacks on meeting criteria; to add criteria of foreign policy alignment; and finding agreement that new members would not use veto powers in the Council and support reform of EU decision-making on the basis of qualified majority voting.

In this endeavour on the road to the EU, Ukraine needs German support. Likewise, Germany needs to support Ukraine – to mend mistakes of the distant and recent history, and to be able to care about Europe’s future.


¹ These are, according to art.2 of the EU Treaty: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.
² In the formats of European Council and the Council of the EU.
³ So called Copen­hagen criteria.
⁴ The poll was commis­sioned by the Jean Jaures foun­da­tion and Yalta European Strategy (YES) and conducted by a leading French polling firm IFOP.
⁵ See details here: Euro­barom­eter.
⁶ Nego­ti­a­tions with Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia, Cyprus conducted over 1998–2003; Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta — 2000–2003; Romania, Bulgaria — 2000–2005; Croatia — 2005–2011.
⁷ For a detailed expla­na­tion of the EU-Ukraine AA/​DCFTA content and imple­men­ta­tion progress in sectoral inte­gra­tion to the Single market see.
⁸ As explained by the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in its Opinion on Ukraine’s EU appli­ca­tion.
⁹ See Ukrainian government’s report on imple­men­ta­tion of Asso­ci­a­tion Agreement as of end of 2021.
¹⁰ For more details see: Report on Inte­gra­tion.
¹¹Joint call of Ukrainian CSOs to EU member states to grant Ukraine EU candidate status promptly, as recog­ni­tion of joint reform achieve­ments (in German).
¹² Ques­tion­naire: Infor­ma­tion requested by the European Commis­sion to the Govern­ment of Ukraine for the prepa­ra­tion of the Opinion on the appli­ca­tion of Ukraine for member­ship of the European Union, Part I and Part II.
¹³ This opinion is also shared e.g. by the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), which compared Ukraine with candidate countries of the Western Balkans.
¹⁴ Ukrinform: Support for EU accession hits record high at 91% in Ukraine.
¹⁵ Latest joint decla­ra­tion of the EU-Ukraine Civil Society Platform under the Asso­ci­a­tion Agreement, which unites NGOs, employers and trade unionists on both sides.
¹⁶ Open letter by Pres­i­dents in support of Ukraine’s swift candidacy to the European Union.

Text as of: 26.05.2022

Dmytro Shulga, Inter­na­tional Renais­sance Foun­da­tion, Ukraine

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