Why Ukraine’s accession to the European Union is not easy

Ukraine has applied to join the EU, but the process is likely to take some time and it is unclear whether there is broad support for accepting several new nations into the bloc.

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The European Union may be on the verge of lending its support to Ukraine becoming its newest member, but the process will not be easy: not only is the country still at war, but several other nations wish to join – and this for some time.

Just days after Russia began its unprovoked invasion of the country, Ukraine sent a letter to the EU officially launching its application process.

Since then, several EU officials have come out in favor of Ukraine joining the bloc, but they have also made it clear that it will be a long process, even if they try to speed things up given of the situation in Ukraine.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, is expected to issue an opinion on Ukraine’s EU membership in the coming weeks, but that will likely only mark the start of a long and difficult journey.

Even the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, admitted that accepting new members into the EU can be difficult.

“Enlargements are always complex – you have different countries, different paths, different steps to follow, different rules to respect. But this is the moment when we have to send the strongest political message: Ukraine belongs to the European family “, she said. CNBC last month.

According to Daniel Gros of the Brussels-based think tank CEPS, receiving political support to join the EU represents “a moral boost for Ukraine and a signal to Russia that the EU will not be deterred”.

But for the EU, supporting Ukraine’s membership bid is a delicate balancing act that affects many countries.

And the others ?

Western Balkan nations have long been promised membership, for example – including North Macedonia, which has even changed its name in a bid to bolster its chances of joining the EU – but negotiations have not haven’t started yet.

Moldova, which borders Ukraine, and Georgia, which borders Russia, also applied to join the bloc following the Russian invasion.

“Particularly in the context of the war in Ukraine, we must remain vigilant and give Western banks the same priority as Ukraine,” Austrian ministers Alexander Schallenberg and Karoline Edtstadler said in a letter to the top diplomat. EU, Josep Borrell. month.

“We cannot afford to create first and second class candidates.”

Western Balkans is a term used to refer to six countries in Southern and Eastern Europe: the Republic of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, the Republic of Kosovo, the Republic of North Macedonia and the Republic of Serbia.

The risk for the EU is that it will be seen as giving preferential treatment to Kyiv, upsetting other parts of the continent and potentially bringing them closer to Russia.

“We want and need these countries firmly rooted in our camp, that of the European model of life, we must demonstrate to them that they are key partners and that we are serious about their European future”, declared the Austrian ministers. in the letter.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC on Tuesday.

Even after publishing its opinion on Ukraine’s membership of the bloc, it will probably be years before member states have a chance to approve Kyiv’s membership, largely because Ukraine will have to put in place implemented several economic and political reforms to comply with European rules.

However, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has spoken out on Ukraine’s EU membership. Last month, she pleaded for financial aid for reconstruction as a way to also help Ukraine join the bloc.

“It could establish a system of milestones and targets to ensure that EU money really benefits the Ukrainian people and is spent according to EU rules. It could help fight corruption, bring the legal environment in line with European standards and radically improve Ukraine’s production capacity,” she told the European Parliament, adding that “eventually this will pave the way for Ukraine’s future within the European Union”.

‘Very difficult’

But political experts believe that Ukraine’s full membership is still a long way off.

“Although Ukraine is unlikely to join the EU anytime soon, there is a clear change in attitude towards enlargement among EU leaders who have realized that it is very frustrating to keep countries that want to become members on hold and opens the door to democratic backsliding and non-EU influence from Russia, China,” said Anna Rosenberg, partner at consultancy Signum Global, by email.

“So yes, EU leaders are now a little more open to enlargement than before the war, but it is still very difficult nonetheless – the problems with countries like Hungary are proof of that. No leader of the EU does not want to allow a second Hungary to enter the bloc.” she added.

Hungary, which joined the EU in 2004, has long been a thorn in the side of European institutions.

This is evident most recently from the decision to impose an oil embargo on Russia. The European Commission made the proposal in early May, but Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban led a coalition of a handful of countries to negotiate exclusions. This dragged out the process much longer than originally planned.

“The EU27 is often ungovernable and it is in my opinion difficult to see new members being admitted into the club without treaty revisions such as [French President Emmanuel] Macron proposed more qualified majority voting and more tax integration,” Jacob Kirkegaard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics said by email.

Currently – and as the recent standoff over the Russian oil embargo demonstrated – major foreign policy decisions require unanimity.

This is already difficult at times, given that the EU is made up of 27 countries with often totally different national priorities. And it might get even harder if the group gets bigger.

Another complication is the fact that there is currently no clarity as to when Russia’s war in Ukraine will end.

“A precondition for a meaningful accession process is not only that Ukraine wins the war in the sense that it needs to control its own territory, but that a real peace agreement is signed with Russia” , Kirkegaard said, adding that “a frozen conflict situation will not give Ukraine EU membership.”

“The question is of course how to achieve this, given that, in a sense, Moscow has a veto over Ukraine’s possible EU membership – no peace agreement, no membership ultimately to the EU.”

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