Input Paper “EU candidate status for 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.
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.
here is our eu membership application pic.twitter.com/SvqKC1uCZw
— maksym.eristavi 🇺🇦🏳️🌈 (@maksymeristavi) April 3, 2022
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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