Stock Groups

Why Ukraine membership of the European Union is not easy


Ukraine applied to join the EU. The process will take time, and there are no indications if the EU has the support of many other countries.

Nurphoto | Nurphoto | Getty Images

The European Union could be about to throw its support behind Ukraine becoming its newest member, but the process will not be easy: not only the country is still at war, but several other nations are keen to join — and have been for some time.

Ukraine sent an official letter to the EU requesting that it begin its formal application process just days after Russia launched its unprovoked invasion.

Many EU officials supported Ukraine joining the bloc in recent years, although they made clear it would be difficult given Ukraine’s situation.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, is expected to issue an opinion on Ukraine joining the EU in the next few weeks — but this will likely just mark the start of a long and difficult journey.

Roberta Metsola (President of the European Parlament) acknowledged the difficulties involved in accepting new EU member states.

“Enlargements are always complex — you have different countries, different paths, different steps to take, different rules to abide by. “But this is the time we must send the strongest political message to Ukraine: Ukraine belongs in Europe,” she said last month to CNBC.

Daniel Gros of CEPS (a Brussels-based thinktank) says receiving political support for EU membership is “a moral boost for Ukraine and a signal that Russia will not be discouraged.”

The EU is supporting Ukraine’s application for membership, but it is delicate and affects many other countries.

But what about all the other?

Nations in the Western Balkans have long been promised accession, for example — including North Macedonia, which even changed its name in an effort to bolster its chances of joining the EU — but negotiations have yet to begin.

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in March, Moldova and Georgia which border Russia both requested to be a part of the group.

In a late-December letter addressed to Josep Borrell, the EU’s highest diplomat, the Austrian ministers Alexander Schallenberg (Austria) and Karoline Edtstadler stated that “particularly in the context of the war in Ukraine we must remain vigilant and give equal priority to the Western Banks and Ukraine”.

We cannot afford to make first- and second-class applicants.

Six countries are located in the southern and eastern parts of Europe and called the Western Balkans. They include the Republic of Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro as well as the Republic of Kosovo and Republic of North Macedonia.

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

In a letter, ministers from Austria stated, “We want and require those countries to be firmly embedded in our camp. The one of the European Model of Life. We must demonstrate to them that we are key partners, and that we care about their European Future.”

CNBC reached out to the European Commission Tuesday for comments.

Although the European Commission will publish its opinion regarding Ukraine’s joining of the bloc, the time it takes for member countries to vote on Kyiv’s admission to the bloc will probably be several years. That is because Ukraine will need to make many economic and political changes to meet European standards.

Ursula von der Leyen is the President of European Commission. She has voiced concern about Ukraine joining the EU. She advocated financial assistance for reconstruction last month as a means to help Ukraine join the bloc.

It could establish a set of targets and milestones to ensure that European money is used in compliance with EU regulations. It could fight corruption, align legal environments with European standards, and dramatically upgrade Ukraine’s production capacity,” she stated in the European Parliament. She also said that the EU money will eventually open the door for Ukraine to join the European Union.

‘Very difficult’

Political experts however believe Ukraine will eventually become a full member.

Signum Global partner Anna Rosenberg stated via email that Ukraine’s membership in the EU is not likely. However, the EU leadership has seen a shift in their attitudes toward enlargement. She realized that holding countries who want to join the EU on the table is frustrating. It also opens up to democracy backsliding, and non-EU influence by Russia and China.

“So, yes, EU leaders are now somewhat more open to enlargement than before the war, but it nevertheless remains very difficult – problems with countries like Hungary are evidence for that. “No EU leader would allow another Hungary to join the bloc,” she said.

Hungary has always been an issue for Europe’s institutions, having joined in 2004.

The recent decision to place an oil embargo against Russia is a prime example of this. While the European Commission proposed it in May, Viktor Orban (Hungarian Prime Minister) led a small group of countries to negotiate carve outs. It took longer than expected to complete the process.

“The EU of 27 members is not always governed and I find it difficult to imagine new members joining the club without Treaty changes. [French President Emmanuel]Macron offered more qualified majority voting, and more fiscal integration,” Jacob Kirkegaard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics stated via email.

Currently — and as demonstrated by the recent impasse over the Russian oil embargo — key foreign policy decisions require unanimity.

It is difficult to do this, as the EU is comprised of 27 different countries that have often completely distinct domestic priorities. This could be even more challenging if the group expands.

Another problem is that it is not clear when Russia will cease its war on Ukraine.

Kirkegaard stated that Ukraine must win the war to gain control of their territory. However, it is also necessary that a peace agreement be signed with Russia. He added that a “frozen conflict will not allow Ukraine to join the EU.”

“Question is of course how to do that given that Moscow has a veto in some sense over Ukraine’s potential EU accession. No peace deal, and no EU membership at the end.