Home / News / World /  Ukraine is not about to join the EU

FROM LIGHTBULBS to military training plus billions of euros, it is hard to keep track of the European Union’s aid for Ukraine. Ursula von der Leyen and most of her European Commission, as well as Charles Michel, president of the European Council, visited Kyiv on February 3rd for meetings with Volodymyr Zelensky, the embattled country’s president, and members of his team. But help is one thing; joining the club quite another. Denys Shmyhal, Ukraine’s prime minister, said earlier this week that his country had an “ambitious plan to join the European Union within the next two years". That is magical thinking. But it does not preclude Ukraine’s relationship with the club from changing radically in the coming years.

“We will continue supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes," said Mrs von der Leyen, as her visit started. She came armed with an assistance package worth €450m ($490m), bringing the total support for wartime Ukraine from the EU, including its member states, to €50bn. (Included in the EU’s aid are 35m low-wattage LED lightbulbs, a potent symbol when Russian missiles have damaged much of Ukraine’s electricity supply.) But Mrs von der Leyen was careful to avoid any promises about accession dates. “There are no rigid timelines, but there are goals," she told a press conference.

In his nightly broadcast to the country on February 2nd, Mr Zelensky said that Ukraine “deserves" to start EU accession talks before the end of this year. That looks unlikely. But either way, starting a negotiation is not the same as ending one. In June, Ukraine, along with Moldova, became an official candidate for EU membership, itself an idea that would have been dismissed as fantasy before the invasion began on February 24th 2022. Apart from Turkey, whose membership bid stalled long ago, before June the only countries with a promise of eventual membership were six in the western Balkans. But their snail-like progress will hardly inspire hope in Kyiv. North Macedonia has been a candidate since 2005, Montenegro has been negotiating since 2012 and Serbia since 2014.

Still, Serhii Kuzan, chairman of the Ukrainian Security and Co-operation Centre, a think-tank, believes his country can join within two years because Europe has already changed so much. When the invasion began, he says, it would have been hard to believe that the EU could remain united in the face of Russian aggression and pour so much aid into Ukraine. Why not open the club’s doors fully to Ukraine? The war has also accelerated Ukraine’s transformation “in every sphere". Mr Kuzan reckons that most EU leaders understand that “our fight and resources are needed by the EU no less than Ukraine needs the EU."

But Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a think-tank based in Berlin, says that it is “impossible" for Ukraine to join in two years. There would be too much opposition from current members that fear losing funding and influence. For any new country to join, says Mr Knaus, two things must happen: it must meet all the EU’s standards, and the EU itself must change. Decision-making is hard enough with 27 members; many more would risk making it impossible. That is why the French and German leaders have argued that there can be no enlargement before EU reform.

This does not mean that Ukraine, or the Balkan six, should jettison their ambitions. Indeed, among a blizzard of agreements signed in Kyiv was one helping Ukrainian companies gain access to the EU’s single market. According to Mr Knaus, folding Ukraine—as well as the western Balkans—into the single market as a first step is more realistic than aiming for membership right away. It would offer these countries huge economic benefits without fundamentally altering the EU’s political structure.

Balkan leaders fear that mere single-market membership would become a waiting room with no exit. But if Ukraine and the EU plumped for this option, says Mr Knaus, Balkan countries would happily follow suit. Ukrainian refugees already enjoy de-facto freedom of movement inside the EU, under the club’s temporary-protection scheme, which was invoked after the war began. Full single-market membership would not be that much of a leap.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
More Less
Recommended For You
Get alerts on WhatsApp
Set Preferences My ReadsWatchlistFeedbackRedeem a Gift CardLogout