It was an impassioned plea: as war raged in his country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called in early March for his country to be allowed to join the European Union, the world’s largest trading bloc, which had helped preserve peace in Europe for decades.
“We have proven that at the very least we are exactly like you,” he told the European Parliament. “So prove you’re with us, prove you won’t let us go, prove you’re Europeans.”
His plea on Friday received a positive endorsement when the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, recommended that Ukraine be granted candidate status in the country’s bid to join the bloc.
However, Mr. Zelensky’s European aspirations are unlikely to be met any time soon: joining the bloc is a laborious and arduous process that can take up to a decade. Poland, for example, applied formally to join the bloc in 1994 and was not admitted until 2004.
For a country to join, its application must be approved by all EU member states, which now number 27. It must also make its political, judicial and economic system compatible with the bloc by adopting the system of common EU law, as well as over 80,000 pages of rules and regulations on topics such as environmental standards and food hygiene rules.
And while there are precedents for fast-track offers – Sweden and Finland managed to join the Union a few years after applying – a quick approach is rare. In addition, other countries have been waiting for years to join, notably Albania, Bosnia and Serbia, which prevents the European Union from advancing more quickly on Ukraine.
Beyond that, the bloc is also experiencing some expansion fatigue after being rocked by economic crises, Brexit and the pandemic, as well as the actions of rule-breaking member countries like Hungary.
Ukraine is already on the right track to get closer to Europe and has concluded an Association Agreement with the European Union, signed in 2014 and concluded in 2017, in which it agreed to intensify economic ties and policies with the bloc.
Ukrainians have been eager to forge closer ties with Europe, and in 2013 hundreds of thousands of them took to the streets to protest when then-President Viktor F. Yanukovych, who was leaning towards Russia, backtracked on the signing of an association agreement. with the union.
Whatever challenges Ukraine’s EU hopefuls face, Russia’s war has sparked a surge of solidarity in the bloc, resulting in some of the toughest sanctions in its history. Central and Eastern European countries like Poland and the Baltics, which lived for decades behind the Iron Curtain and where memories of Russian subjugation run deep, were among the most enthusiastic in supporting membership. from Ukraine.
Most Europeans welcomed the union’s eastward expansion in May 2004, when it admitted 10 mostly former communist countries – including the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland – because, among other things , it cemented the demise of the Soviet bloc and helped spread economic and political liberalism. across the continent.
The European Union’s ability to offer countries membership has been one of its greatest foreign policy tools in the post-Cold War world. The prospect of membership has forced Bulgaria and Romania to try to fight corruption and hastened the arrest of war criminals in Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro.
While Ukraine’s EU accession process is likely to be gradual and face significant challenges, the country’s attempt to forge closer ties with NATO and the European Union highlights how President Vladimir V. Putin’s attempt to force Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit seems to have the opposite effect.