Editor’s note: This is a guest story by Euractiv, a pan-European media network specializing in EU policies.
Amid Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky made a historic push to bring the country closer to European Union membership.
On Feb. 28, Zelensky signed an official request to join the EU, launching the long and complicated process of accession.
The next day, the European Parliament officially supported Ukraine’s application.
“As our Resolution clearly states, we welcome Ukraine’s application for candidate status and we will work towards that goal,” European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said.
However, despite Ukraine’s overwhelming support for EU membership and the European Parliament’s official endorsement, the path to EU for Ukraine had only begun with success uncertain and timeframe unknown.
Can Ukraine get on the fast lane to EU membership?
The European Parliament endorsed Ukraine’s application on March 1, but in reality, it is mostly a symbolic message. Every decision related to EU enlargement must be unanimously approved by the EU’s 27 member countries.
Furthermore, accession is a long and tortuous process that involves detailed technical preparations and usually takes years, with checks and possible vetoes at every step of the way. Serbia and Montenegro, the two Western Balkan “frontrunners,” have been negotiating for a decade with the end not in sight. Two other Western Balkan states, North Macedonia and Albania, have been candidates for 17 and eight years, respectively, and haven’t even opened accession talks yet.
Can Ukraine become an EU candidate 'overnight'?
In normal circumstances, any European country applying for EU membership must meet the so-called “Copenhagen criteria,” which states:
Membership requires that the candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities, the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union. Membership presupposes the candidate's ability to take on the obligations of membership including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.
The applicant usually signs an association agreement with the EU as the first step, which Ukraine has completed. Once a country has formally applied for membership, the European Council asks the Commission to prepare an opinion, or “avis,” as to the country's readiness to open negotiations.
The Commission then issues a recommendation as to whether the country should start accession talks. The Council usually accepts that recommendation, leading the country to become an official EU candidate.
In the case of Ukraine, it is not entirely impossible (though still not very likely) that the country receives candidate status quickly, as a political message, but that is tricky given longstanding enlargement fatigue and skepticism in some member states.
While they might be willing to briefly put that aside given the dramatic circumstances and prevailing sympathy and support for Ukraine, such a decision would undoubtedly make it clear that the remaining steps should follow the normal route.
Also, if Ukraine is fast tracked, it would probably be perceived as unfair by the countries in the Western Balkans (Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina) also looking towards EU status.
Special relations might be another interim possibility, whereby Ukraine would get access to the EU single market as well as possible access to EU funds.
In an ideal scenario, the informal European Council of EU leaders that meets in Paris on March 10-11 might – but it is still uncertain – discuss Ukraine's application.
Achieving candidate status, however, does not mean the country immediately starts accession talks. The opening of membership negotiations must be unanimously approved by all EU member states. That stretch of the process can be prolonged as any EU country can impose a veto.
Once the European Council gives the green light, the Commission begins a screening process that involves detailed scrutiny of the country's legislation to see how well aligned it is with EU law. The final outcome of this is a negotiating mandate that sets the commission’s objectives for a future agreement.
The point of accession talks is to establish alignment between EU legislation, or the acquis communautaire, and the legislation of the new member state. The acquis is divided into 35 negotiating chapters, grouped into six clusters – covering every legislative aspect. This includes possible “special issues,” as in the case of Serbia that must normalize its relations with Kosovo.
It is then that the really painstaking work begins.
Each of the 35 chapters can only be closed with the unanimous blessing of all EU member states. That normally takes years, usually between four and seven or even more, as we're seeing now with Serbia and Montenegro.
To clarify further, if the U.K., for example, were to revoke Brexit and re-apply for EU membership, it would have to follow the same procedure: each of the 35 chapters would be carefully analyzed before they could be closed.
Once all the chapters have been closed, the country signs the Accession Treaty that specifies a date for accession. The treaty also needs to be ratified by all 27 EU members, whereby the candidate country becomes an “acceding country” and further awaits its accession.
The last countries to accede to the EU were Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia. Romania applied for EU membership in June 1995 and Bulgaria in December 1995. Both countries were invited to start accession negotiations in December 1999. It took Bulgaria and Romania until April 25, 2005 to sign their Accession Treaties, and they finally joined on Jan. 1, 2007.
For Croatia, things moved a bit faster: it applied for EU membership in 2003 and joined on July 1, 2013, so it only took a decade.