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Long road for Ukraine, Moldova to join EU

Ella Joyner Brussels
June 25, 2022

Although EU candidacy for Ukraine and Moldova has been hailed as historic, frustrations among other candidates years into their own membership bids should serve as a reminder that the path ahead won't be easy.

A poster with the EU and Ukrainian colors
Ukraine's EU candidate status was approved in record timeImage: picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Leaders from the European Union lined up to hail the symbolic value of the decision to grant both Ukraine and Moldova EU candidate status at a summit in Brussels this week, seen by many as bolstering Ukraine's campaign to drive out Russian forces.

The process has moved at record speed. Both countries only placed their bids for EU membership shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in late February.

After the European Commission recommended that Ukraine be given candidate status on June 17, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took to Twitter to welcome the "1st step on the EU membership path that'll certainly bring our victory closer."

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausedas summed up the prevailing EU view neatly on Friday, telling DW that Ukrainians were fighting not just for their own sovereignty but for "our values and principles too. So they are fighting for Europe."

Ukraine is 'a very strong nation': Lithuanian president

The summit on Thursday produced smiles all round — except in Georgia, which like Ukraine and Moldova requested membership in light of Russia's attack but was only offered a "European perspective." The prospect of candidacy was put on hold pending further reforms, including a cleanup of oligarch influence.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky listening during a meeting, in a khaki T-shirt
Zelenskyy officially submitted Ukraine's application for EU membership just weeks after Russia invadedImage: UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE/AFP

Tbilisi made clear it still wants in, and earlier this week, residents poured onto the streets in the capital in a "March for Europe" to demonstrate their commitment to join the EU.

Long road ahead

But that is a process usually requiring intense and often painful economic and political reform, and can take years— at times even more than a decade. Candidate status itself is no guarantee of entry.

Five countries — Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey — are already EU candidates, with most in accession negotiations which are at a standstill.

Candidacy status doesn't carry any real legal heft either. It only allows "intergovernmental conferences" of EU officials and member states to discuss policy reform, experts from the Centre for European Policy Studies pointed out in a recent report.

For Majda Ruge, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, granting candidacy to Ukraine and Moldova is mainly a "geostrategic decision" from the EU to send a message to Moscow

"These are two countries where Russia has expressed its appetite territorially," she told DW.

Moldova too has a breakaway region, Transnistria on the border with western Ukraine, which is controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

Moldova's President Maia Sandu
Moldova's President Maia Sandu addressed the European Parliament in Brussels in MayImage: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

On the difficulty of EU accession, Nausedas, whose own country, Lithuania joined in 2004 after years of waiting, said that neither of the new candidates were naive. "They understand that this is just the starting point of reforms," he said on the sidelines of the summit in Brussels on Friday. "And of course, [for Ukraine] they have to win this war first of all."

War heightens uncertainty around Ukraine's bid

It's an important caveat. It's impossible to predict where Ukraine's bid could be in five years, Ruge said.

"Out of experience, in every war, the result is the development of more gray zones. You'll have smuggling networks and clandestine fighters," she said. "The rule of law is certainly not going to flourish in Ukraine during the war."

Even if it wins, Ukraine will have some pretty serious reconstruction work to do, both materially and politically. None of that foreshadows swift, easy accession.

'A very clear signal' to Moscow: Latvia's PM

Balkan frustration over stalled bids

The pitfalls of stalled membership bids were on full display this week. Western Balkan leaders threatened not to turn up at another summit where no progress was made on their bids to join the EU. In the end they came, but their frustration stood in marked contrast to the elation of Ukraine and Moldova.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama expressed his discontent in a tweet: "Nice place, nice people, nice words, nice pictures, and just imagine how much nicer [sic.] could be if nice promises were followed by nice delivery," he wrote.

His country's bid to formally start negotiations to join the EU is frozen because it is tied together with that of North Macedonia.

EU member Bulgaria has been blocking both bids due to a bilateral dispute with the Albanian government for years, though a parliamentary vote in Sofia on Friday might finally allow a breakthrough. Before that, France and the Netherlands put up last-minute opposition.

Accession vetoes a big problem

"EU enlargement, I think is going to be very difficult before the voting procedures are reformed from unanimity to qualified majority voting," Majda Ruge warned.

As long as individual states can veto accession, processes can stall. It's a long-standing problem that many feel has undermined EU credibility on accession. It also depends on the will of membership hopefuls, Ruge said, adding that EU candidacy doesn't automatically turbocharge reform. She pointed to Serbia as a case in point, where there has been much democratic backsliding in recent years. Like Albania, Northern Macedonia and Montenegro, and Montenegro, Serbia's membership has still not been validated and negotiations are ongoing.

For Ukraine and Moldova, "right now, it's at the level of political signaling," Ruge said.

Whether these bids can actually move forward or get stuck depends as much on the 27 EU capitals as it does on Kyiv and Chisinau.

Edited by: Sonia Phalnikar