Ukraine applied to join the EU four days after the Russian invasion in February 2022. For a state to join the EU, all existing Member States must agree, and that country must meet certain criteria.

This Insight explains how the EU has responded and what the process would be for Ukraine to join.

Ukraine’s application

On 28 February 2022, President Zelenskyy signed an official request for Ukraine to join the EU. This was submitted to the EU the same day. Two other former Soviet Union states, Georgia and Moldova, submitted applications to join the EU on 3 March.

President Zelenskyy asked for immediate Ukrainian membership of the EU, proposing this be done under “a new special procedure”.

On 24 March, Zelenskyy addressed EU leaders at the European Council meeting, asking all Member States to support Ukraine’s membership.

How has the EU responded?

On the day Ukraine made its request, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said “they are one of us, and we want them in”. But she also referred to a process which would be “over time”. After Zelenskyy addressed the European Parliament on 1 March, it called on the EU to work towards giving Ukraine EU candidate status. But this would be “on the basis of merit”.

At an EU leaders’ summit on 10-11 March, Member States declared “Ukraine belongs to our European family”. They said the Council of the EU (Ministers from each Member State) had responded swiftly by inviting the European Commission to submit its opinion on Ukraine’s application. The Commission is the EU’s executive arm which implements EU policies.

In the meantime, EU leaders said the EU would deepen its partnership with Ukraine and support it in pursuing “its European path”. EU leaders at the European Council meeting on 24 March restated this position.

The Council also asked the Commission to submit its opinions on the applications of Moldova and Georgia.

How have EU Member States reacted?

Following the Russian invasion, the Presidents of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia issued a joint statement calling on the EU to give Ukraine “candidate” status and begin the negotiating process for joining the EU. Other countries, including Croatia, Hungary, Romania, and Italy have also given support.

Other Member States have adopted a more cautious tone. At the leaders’ summit on 10-11 March, President Macron of France said it would be unfair to say “never” but that opening an accession procedure with a country at war was not possible. The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte said there could be no “fast-track procedure” and that countries in western Europe were agreed on this. He later warned giving Ukraine preferential treatment could be a problem for western Balkan countries that had long standing applications (see below).

France and the Netherlands are among Member States that are more sceptical about enlargement. France has proposed a more rigorous accession process and is among Member States concerned about a drift towards undemocratic practices in other Member States that have joined since 2004. This has also led to broader calls for reformed EU decision-making before agreeing to further enlargement. With regard to Ukraine, some Member States are concerned about corruption, instability of its institutions and the state of its economy.

How does a state apply to join the EU?

Applications to join the EU are made to the Council of the EU under Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU). EU membership is open to European countries that respect certain democratic values of the EU, set out in Article 2 TEU.

The Council takes the formal decisions on starting membership negotiations and admitting new members. The European Parliament’s agreement is also needed.

Once an application is made, the European Commission assesses suitability to join. The Commission can recommend that an applicant country becomes a “candidate country”. Candidate countries need to meet certain criteria. These include having stable institutions that guarantee democracy, the rule of law and human rights, and having a functioning market economy. They are also expected to adhere to the EU aims of political, economic and monetary union.

Becoming a candidate country is just the beginning of the accession process. The Commission may recommend that applicant states meet certain benchmarks before negotiations can begin. Negotiations cannot start until all Member States agree they should.

The accession process

Negotiations take place in an intergovernmental conference involving representatives of the Member States and the candidate country. Candidates need to implement, or get ready to implement, all the EU’s standards and rules before joining. These are divided into 35 different policy chapters. The Commission monitors progress in implementing these chapters.

The accession process is lengthy. Once candidate countries have met the conditions for membership in each policy chapter, the Commission will recommend that accession can proceed. But this will still need to be agreed by the Council, and the European Parliament.

The final terms of EU membership, including any transitional arrangements, are then set out in an accession treaty. This needs to be ratified by the candidate country and every EU Member State, according to their own constitutional rules.

For recent Member States, the total time between making their applications and actually joining the EU was ten to twelve years. Once started, negotiations usually take from six to eight years, but decisions to confer candidate status and start negotiations can also take up a lot of time.

Current candidates for accession

Progress for current candidates for membership has been slower, however. Albania, the Republic of North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey are all candidate countries.

Accession negotiations began with Turkey in 2005, but they made little progress before stalling completely and seem unlikely to be revived in the near future. Negotiations began with Montenegro in 2012 and Serbia in 2014, but have made little progress.

North Macedonia was granted candidate status in 2005, and Albania in 2014. The Commission presented draft negotiating frameworks for both countries to EU Member States in 2020. But some Member States have been reluctant to give the go ahead to the negotiations beginning.

Further reading

The EU response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, House of Commons Library

Maintaining peace and stability in the Balkans,  House of Commons Library


About the author: Stefano Fella is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in UK-EU relations, the EU and European countries.

Image: © Pavlo Vakhrushev – stock.adobe.com #279703900

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