Ukraine membership in the European Union

Shortly after the invasion by Russia, Ukraine requested to join the European Union. How do we make sense of this complex situation? What are the likely consequences if Ukraine's request for membership is granted?

The Ukraine crisis has highlighted a side of the European Union (EU) not often seen. The Ursula Von der Leyen leadership of the European Commission is the most aggressive seen within the EU in years. This approach by Von der Leyen has the qualities of making up for the institutional inadequacies of the EU and equally important of a compliant group of European leaders. With the exception of Victor Orban from Hungary, most of Ursula Von der Leyens's calls for opposition to Russia's invasion and the approach to take toward support for Ukraine have been accepted by the European member states, and only nuances of differences have been heard for the moment.  

On 28 February 2022, shortly after the Russian invasion, Ukraine applied for membership of the EU. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky requested admission under a "new special procedure," and the eight members from the EU heads of states called for an accelerated accession process. In their bid to show support for Ukraine, and as a way to annoy Russian attempts at destroying Ukraine, Ursula Von der Leyen indicated that the EU had open arms toward Ukraine's membership and projected a fast-track option. This openness toward Ukraine was further supported by the June 2022 EU Council meeting involving the 27 heads of states discussing the question of Ukraine membership of the EU, as well as that of Georgia and Moldova. At the end of the meeting, a media release declared "the European Council has decided to grant the status of candidate country to Ukraine and to the Republic of Moldova." It further stipulated that "the progress of each country toward the EU will depend on its own merit in meeting the Copenhagen criteria, taking into consideration the EU's capacity to absorb new members."

This dual standard for membership, while expedient for a show of support for Ukraine by the EU Commission, simultaneously upset those in the membership "waiting room." This included the Western Balkans nations  - Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Albania. Turkey, which is a long-standing potential candidate for EU membership, is an even more complex scenario not possible to address in this short article but nonetheless very distant from membership of the EU. 

The approach toward Ukraine raised questions for the candidate countries (all in the Western Balkans), who were adhering to the due process of reforms and compliance of EU membership protocols. On the other hand, fast-tracking Ukraine may allow for a faster tracking of Western Balkan nations for EU membership. The EU enlargement policy is deeply challenged by these events throwing the cat among the pigeons. The EU has traditionally tackled enlargement through a step-by-step procedural approach ensuring that new member states are EU ready. While talks with Albania and North Macedonia for membership have not even started, due to a Bulgarian veto, negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro are at a standstill ever since they became candidates. Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina have not officially achieved their candidate status. 

As the war in Ukraine drags on, some reflection on these events within wider Europe is beginning to happen. Recent research from the European Council on Foreign Relations asserts that:

While Europeans feel great solidarity with Ukraine and support sanctions against Russia, they are split about the long-term goals. They divide between a "Peace" camp (35 per cent of people) that wants the war to end as soon as possible, and a "Justice" camp that believes the more pressing goal is to punish Russia (25 per cent of people).

Equally, the effects of the Ukraine crisis are beginning to be felt in some of the member states. In Italy, the largest party within the Mario Draghi coalition government, the 5 Star Movement, recently split on the question of arming Ukraine. The former Foreign Affairs Minister De Maio attacked his own party, the 5 Star Movement, for undermining the Draghi government in its efforts to support Ukraine. The leader of the 5 Star Movement and former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, reluctantly, backed the government's decision to send arms to Ukraine, but as the fighting continued, he has increased his opposition to supplying Ukraine with weapons, indicating that the weapons were fueling a prolonged war and preferring a dialogue with Russia instead.

While decision-making of the EU is normally more pedestrian and in accordance with its carefully crafted institutional norms, the events in Ukraine have raised the stakes. Some of this more decisive leadership can be put down to some of the new personalities in the EU that have emerged, such as Ursula Von der Leyen. But the Ukraine crisis provides the perfect occasion for this decisiveness to be addressed. Whether this united front by Europe and the United States of America against Russia lasts is difficult to predict. The effects of this conflict will certainly endure for decades, and the Ukrainian people will continue to be impacted. Nonetheless, the EU (and NATO for that matter) continues the path of expansion toward the East. While many will argue that this is a choice for each nation concerned, it is also a dangerous option and will make Europe even more uncertain than it was.