The European Union has shown great support for Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict that started with the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Not only did the EU offer humanitarian aid, but it also started a strong common framework of economic sanctions against Russia in the attempt to bring the ongoing aggression to an end. Yet, Ukraine wants the EU to step up its support by accepting and accelerating the accession of the country to the EU.
Is there a new enlargement process going on?
On 28 of February 2022 Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky officially signed and submitted the application for the accession to the EU. During his speech at the European Parliament Zelensky urged the EU to consider a new special procedure to accelerate the whole process, claiming that “our goal is to be with all Europeans”.
The President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, responded by showing her support and claimed that the EU recognizes such European perspectives of Ukraine. Indeed, she welcomed Ukraine’s application for accession by stating that “we will work towards that goal, because we will and we must face the future together”. Other EU representatives showed their support for Ukraine, including the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who claimed that Ukraine is “one of us and we want them in”, and the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, who tweeted “Ukraine and its people are family”.
Even if the demand for EU membership has been warmly welcomed by the European Union, Ukraine has not been granted the Candidate Status yet. Therefore, negotiations for membership are still on hold.
The subsequent applications submitted by Georgia and Moldova on 3 March 2022 shows a huge will of some Eastern European countries to get closer to the EU. This way, they are also sending an important message to the Russian Federation, which may not welcome such friendly moves towards the West. It is relevant, indeed, to notice that the Georgian speaker of Parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze, stated that the decision to submit the application for EU membership was made “based on the overall political context and the new reality”.
Additionally, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova already have Association Agreements with the EU. A European Union Association Agreement is a treaty between the EU, its member states and a non-EU country which establishes a framework for cooperation. Art. 217 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union states that “the Union may conclude with one or more third countries or international organizations agreements establishing an association involving reciprocal rights and obligations, common action and special procedure”. Indeed, Association Agreements usually include issues of political, economic, cultural and security developments. As a result, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have already established a relationship of cooperation with the EU. Yet, being granted EU membership would have a completely different meaning.
A quick recap on the functioning of the accession procedure
The process of accession has no legal time constraints. Indeed, throughout the historical enlargement of the EU, the duration of the negotiation process for each country’s accession has varied. For instance, Croatia joined the EU in 2013, yet negotiations lasted from 2005 until 2011; whereas Austria applied for accession in 1993 and was granted membership in 1995, after only 2 years of negotiations. There are now five recognized candidates for EU membership: Turkey, applied in 1987; North Macedonia, applied in 2004; Montenegro, applied in 2008; Albania, applied in 2009; and Serbia, applied in 2009.
The accession is regulated by Art. 49 of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU) that provides “any European State which respects the values referred to in Article 2 and is committed to promoting them may apply to become a member of the Union”. This means that in order to submit the application for accession and to be granted the candidate status, two initial conditions must be satisfied:
1. The applicant country must be a European state.
2. Common EU core values, outlined in Art.2 TEU, shall be respected.
Art. 2 TEU enumerates the founding values of the EU, whose observance also serves as a condition for applicant states. These are the “respect of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”. So, if and only if those two conditions are satisfied, then the country can present its application to the European Council, the EU body composed of the heads of state or government of the EU member states, together with the President of the European Council, and the President of the European Commission. At the same time, the European Parliament and the national parliaments of the applicant state are notified of the application.
On the basis of an Opinion provided by the Commission, all EU member states shall decide unanimously whether to grant or not the Candidate Status to the applicant country. According to Art.49 TEU, the European Council has indeed to assess the possibilities for accession, deciding whether negotiations should be opened or not. If the negotiations begin and are successful, the European Commission shall give its Opinion on the readiness of the candidate State to become a EU member state. Once the application is formally submitted to the European Council and the applicant country is granted with the Candidate Status, the process of accession officially starts. Lastly, all EU member states decide unanimously to finalize the whole negotiation process, with the approval of the European Parliament. The applicant then formally becomes an EU member state as soon as all member states sign and ratify the Accession Treaty.
So, how will the EU respond to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova’s requests to join the EU?
The Russian aggression has been defined as a tectonic shift in European history. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine is surely adding great pressure to the accession procedure of Eastern European countries. And it represents a great risk, too. As a matter of fact, the EU has a mutual defense pact, meaning that in the event that a member state is attacked, all EU countries would have an obligation to assist, a situation which could lead to a war with Russia. EU leaders have been discussing EU membership of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia at the informal meeting of the EU Council taking place in Versailles on 10 and 11 March. This event represents an important floor of debate. Yet, as it emerged from the conclusions of the first day of talks, an immediate accession of Ukraine is unlikely to happen. This does not mean that accession is off the table, yet negotiations are likely to take quite some time. For now, the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU represents the strongest system of cooperation with Ukraine. At the same time EU leaders reiterated their common will to strengthen political, financial and humanitarian assistance to refugees fleeing the country.