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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