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From candidate to Council: the long road ahead of Ukraine in the EU

Vote to make Ukraine an official candidate for the EU hailed as “defining moment” – but the journey has just begun.

EARLIER THIS WEEK, the European Council gave its unanimous support for Ukraine to become a candidate to join the European Union.

The council – which is made up of the heads of state of the 27 EU countries – also backed candidate status for Moldova (but rejected Georgia’s bid, instead recognising the country’s “European perspective”). The move has been hailed as a defining moment in the history of the bloc.

“This is a very defining moment and a very good day for Europe today,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, during a press conference on Thursday.

“I think this is a moment of great satisfaction and I’m very pleased with the leaders’ endorsement of our opinions. There can be no better sign of hope for the citizens of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in these troubled times.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the council meeting was “significant” and “historic”.

But, although the move is important, there is a long road ahead before Ukraine and Moldova would be able to formally join the EU. The last country to become a full member of the EU was Croatia, in 2013. It took eight years for Croatia to go from candidate status to membership.

Turkey has been a candidate to join the EU since 1999, and there are no signs of it joining any time soon. Meanwhile, other countries in the Western Balkans are still waiting to join after years of negotiations.

So, what is the process from candidacy to full membership? What will it take for Ukraine to join? And what about the other candidate countries?

Only the beginning of the journey

The first part of the process for a country to become a member of the European Union is for them to officially apply for candidate status. Ukraine did this on 28 February, soon after the country was invaded by Russia.

On 7 March, the European Council voted to move the process forward, and ask the European Commission’s opinion (the next step). A decision from the European Commision (the executive branch of the EU) was given last week, recommending that Ukraine be granted candidate status.

It then fell back to the European Council to agree unanimously on granting Ukraine candidate status, which it did on Thursday, along with Moldova.

The European Parliament also adopted a resolution earlier this week calling on the Council to give candidate status to Ukraine “without delay”.

turkish-prime-minister-buerent-ecevit-c-is-welcomed-by-british-prime-minister-tony-blair-l-as-lithuanian-president-valdus-adamkus-r-looks-on-during-a-family-photo-with-leaders-and-foreign-minist The scene in 1991 as then Turkish prime minister Buerent Ecevit is welcomed by British prime minister Tony Blair and Lithuanian president Valdus Adamkus (right). Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

According to Stephen O’Shea, Deputy CEO with European Movement Ireland, a pro-EU organisation, the granting of candidate status is an important moment.

“It’s very welcome from our perspective, but also public opinion across Europe is very supportive of it,” he says. “But there is a long, arduous road ahead.”

There are now seven countries who are candidates to join the EU. Along with Ukraine and Moldova, Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey are all on the candidate list.

Next… to negotiation

The next step in the process is for the European Commission and Ukraine officials to draw up a negotiating framework. This will be a basis for conducting negotiations. Once agreed upon, it must then go back to the European Council for further approval before official negotiations can begin.

The negotiations are by far the hardest part of the candidacy process, and can take many years to complete, or stall altogether, as is the case with Turkey’s candidacy.

In broad terms, candidate countries must meet three conditions before they can become full members. These are known as the “Copenhagen criteria”, under which countries must: 

  • Have stable and democratic institutions 

  • Be a functioning market economy 

  • Be willing and able to implement EU laws and regulations (knows as the “acquis”)

 “So that is the broad criteria in terms of accession status,” says O’Shea.

 “And then the process as it currently stands for any country wishing to join, or in accession negotiations, is they work through EU laws, EU values and requirements, chapter by chapter.”

There are currently 35 chapters of policies and laws that must be addressed in negotiations, including things like company law, public procurement, fisheries and taxation, among others.

Once the commission is satisfied that a candidate country has met the requirements of a specific chapter, then the council has to unanimously decide to close it. Once all chapters are considered closed, then the council again must vote to approve accession. This is followed by a vote in the European Parliament, and then finally each EU member must ratify to bid.

Only after all this has been completed will a candidate country become a full member of the European Union.

How long can it take? In Brussels this week as Ukraine waited to hear if it would begin its candidacy journey. Lauren Boland / The Journal Lauren Boland / The Journal / The Journal

“The average time for accession is about five years. Croatia, the last member to join [in 2013], it took eight years,” says Stephen O’Shea.

The EU has gone through a number of enlargements throughout its history. Ireland joined in 1973, along with the UK and Denmark. Austria, Finland and Sweden joined in 1995, with negotiations taking between three and five years, the shortest accession process to date.

For the significant enlargement involving Eastern European countries in the 2000s, the negotiations lasted over 10 years. Meanwhile, the accession process of current candidate countries has stalled or halted altogether in recent years.

Turkey has been a candidate for over two decades, but negotiations have effectively ceased, as a result of democratic backsliding in the country. There has also been little progress in recent years in the candidacy of Western Balkans countries over a variety of political issues. 

“Englargement fatigue”?

All this has led to a perception of what’s being called “enlargement fatigue” on the part of the EU. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has focused minds in union, and the country went from applying to being granted candidate status in record time.

Some countries, including Ireland, have called for a faster, streamlined process for countries joining the EU. 

“My own view is to facilitate a more rapid and accelerated enlargement process in terms of the neighbourhood,” Taoiseach Micheál Martin said in Brussels on Thursday.

It’s better for the European Union, it’s better for political stability, but above all, it gives those countries in the neighbourhood a much better opportunity to develop economically and socially.

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron has put forward proposals for a wider “European Political Community” that could work together on matters of common interest, and that would include countries still waiting to join the EU.

However, the plan has been met with some scepticism from candidate countries, with leaders calling for more information on what this would entail.

Symbolic for Ukraine

Despite the long road ahead, Ukraine’s candidate status has been hailed as a “symbolic” and positive move for the country, and will bring it closer to the EU while negotiations are ongoing.

“By being an EU candidate country, that is a symbolic thing in itself, but it also brings Ukraine closer to Europe in terms of even just the negotiating process, with the Commission and with the institutions,” says O’Shea.

“Obviously it gives them… a focal point and a point on the horizon that they can focus their efforts on, in terms of ultimately acceding to the EU at some point in the future.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

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