Input Paper „EU can­di­date status for Ukraine“

Foto: Pre­si­den­tial Office of Ukraine

Im Rahmen unseres Pro­jek­tes „Öst­li­che Part­ner­schaft Plus“ ver­öf­fent­li­chen wir eine Reihe von Input Papers zum Thema: Per­spek­ti­ven und Wege zum EU-Kan­di­da­ten­sta­tus für die Ukraine, Geor­gien und die Repu­blik Moldau.

Für die Ukraine ana­ly­siert Dmytro Shulga die poli­ti­sche Lage und for­mu­liert seine Hand­lungs­emp­feh­lun­gen an die Ent­schei­dungs­trä­gerInnen in Berlin und Brüssel, warum die EU ein geo­po­li­ti­scher Akteur werden sollte und dem Trio im Juni einen EU-Kan­di­da­ten­sta­tus ver­lei­hen sollte.

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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