Transatlantic Take: Paris, Ankara, Washington

Should the EU Offer Ukraine Candidate Status?

June 01, 2022
Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis /
While Russia’s war against Ukraine rages on and Europe’s security remains threatened, there is a strong push from three Eastern Partnership countries, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, to gain EU candidate status.

Starting May 30, the European Council is holding a special meeting focusing on issues related to the war in Ukraine, and this will be followed by a summit in June where membership options for Kyiv and other aspirants will be discussed.

The messaging coming from Brussels and across the EU in the past weeks has been decidedly mixed. After European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in February that Ukraine is “one of us and we want them in the European Union,” France’s President Emmanuel Macron presented a “community” option for Ukraine, which seemed to be something less than membership. Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on a visit to Kyiv in May cautioned against “false promises” or “shortcuts” for Ukrainian membership, but also said “Ukraine is an integral part of Europe, I wish that we will find a strong and convincing answer to your desire to join.”

The issue of EU candidacy for Ukraine—and potentially Georgia and Moldova—will remain a hot topic in Europe leading up to the summit in late June. Here, analysts from Paris, Ankara, and Washington, DC, offer their views.

A Bigger EU Must Work Better, So Integration Must Be Reinvented

Gesine Weber, program coordinator in GMF's Paris office

In his speech in the European parliament on Europe Day, France’s President Emmanuel Macron expressed his support for quickly granting EU candidate status to Ukraine. But he also noted that membership might take years or even decades because the country would have to fulfill all the requirements. Indeed, if the EU grants candidate status to Ukraine, this will not be only a political signal: saying candidate status today means potential membership tomorrow.

Ukraine is not ready for EU membership today. The European Commission’s last report on the implementation of the association agreement with the country acknowledges the progress it has made. But it also underlines that Ukraine still needs to make significant efforts in the rule of law, judicial reform, and intellectual property rights. Candidate status would hence imply a very long process of negotiations on the different chapters of the EU’s acquis. The EU has designed the accession process in a way that reflects that the common European project requires common standards and rules. This is why candidate status for Ukraine, while being an important political signal, should not lead to fast-track membership. Developments in Hungary and Poland in recent years show how problematic non-compliance with the EU’s rule-of-law standards is. If the EU wants to preserve the achievements of European integration, it must actively design new modes of cooperation with countries that are willing to be bound more closely to the union but do not fulfill the criteria for membership.

If the EU wants to preserve the achievements of European integration,it must actively design new modes of cooperation with countries that are willing to be bound more closely to the union but do not fulfill the criteria for membership.

The discussion on EU candidate status, and ultimately membership, for Ukraine hence needs to be accompanied by reflections on treaty change. The EU’s current institutional system, particularly the unanimity requirement for decisions in key policy areas, already renders EU governance challenging. An EU with more member states—given the debates on the membership of the Western Balkan countries, Georgia and Moldova will probably also resurface with granting candidate status to Ukraine—would risk institutional paralysis and lowest-common-denominator politics in key areas.

In other words, a bigger EU also needs to work better and this is why the model of a European Political Community suggested by Macron is promising. Call it also a “core Europe” or “differentiated integration” or “staged membership,” this would make it possible to use the potential of all countries for cooperation in Europe. A group of countries that fully comply with the acquis could cooperate on all areas currently covered by the Lisbon Treaty, while others that either do not comply or do not favor full membership could be privileged partners with cooperation going beyond deep and comprehensive free trade areas or the relatively vague association agreements. The time has come to reinvent models of European integration to the benefit of Europe as a whole: preserving the EU’s acquis and giving a clear and attractive integration perspective to those wishing to contribute to the European project through institutionalized cooperation.

Candidacy Yes, but No Speed Lane to Membership

Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, director of GMF's Ankara office

A distinction needs to be made between a fast-track EU candidacy for Ukraine and eventual membership. A country needs to fulfill the Copenhagen Political Criteria to be eligible for accession candidate status for the EU, but as Turkey’s experience has demonstrated this is only the beginning of a long and arduous journey (22 years and counting in Turkey’s case) which may or may not result with membership. Nevertheless, it is not only the eventual membership, but also the accession process that benefits a candidate country.

Turkey was formally recognized as a candidate to the EU in 1999 at the Helsinki Summit and undertook a very ambitious reform agenda, which led in 2005 to the European Council decision to launch accession negotiations with Turkey. Since then, with the EU being consumed in its own crises and Turkey reversing its democratic reform momentum, Turkey’s accession process has entered deep freeze. Yet the EU accession process remains an anchor for democratic reforms.

Yet the EU accession process remains an anchor for democratic reforms.

A fast-track recognition of Ukraine’s candidacy status by the EU would send the right messages to both Ukraine and Russia. Similarly, a fast-track launch of accession negotiations, once the war is over, would offer additional incentive for democratic reform in Ukraine and create and advantage for reform-minded Ukrainians in national politics. However, a fast-track launch of accession negotiations would not necessarily ensure fast-track or premature membership for Ukraine. The pace of the accession talks would be set by the pace of Ukraine’s democratic reforms, even if all Member States support Ukraine’s bid. If or when Ukraine has fulfilled all the criteria, each and every Member State would still have a say in the final decision to admit Ukraine.

If Ukraine is presented with the opportunity of a fast-track candidacy to the EU, it will be very important to manage the expectations of the Ukrainian society to avoid frustration. The Ukrainian society should be clearly informed that fast-track candidacy does not mean fast-track membership. It is important that they understand that the accession process is a boon, even without eventual membership.

There is no harm in working on EU Treaty change for a multiple-speed European integration, but it will certainly be discouraging for any candidate country to be told that they will probably have to settle for something less than full membership, even as a far-off goal.

The EU’s Opportunity to Advance Democracy in Its Neighborhood

Jonathan Katz, director of Democracy Initiatives and senior fellow

Like Ukrainians, Georgians and Moldovans know firsthand the impact of Russian hybrid aggression and conflict and view euro-integration, including EU candidacy, as urgent and vital to their independence and democratic future. Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova have sought unsuccessfully since 2014 (despite signing Association Agreements and its Deep and Comprehensive Free Agreements with the EU and making steady progress on key reforms) to gain clarity about timing or inevitability of EU candidacy and membership.

Since the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine in February, all three countries have speedily applied for EU membership. There have been positive signals in response to these applications from Brussels, including the European Parliament. Support has also come from many central and eastern EU member states, who know acutely what EU candidacy and membership mean at this moment, having themselves sought full Euro-Atlantic integration and received substantial financial, political, and technical assistance from Brussels after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. But there are also other voices in Europe less willing to fully open the door, including France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who seeks alternative integration paths for Ukraine and other aspirants, including a barely sketched-out two-tiered Europe.

The EU must consider the impact of a clear message of rejection to Moldovans, Ukrainians, and Georgians, who are pinning their hopes, future, and security on being part of the EU that brought greater democracy and prosperity to millions of citizens once living behind an iron curtain.

The status-quo limbo of Kyiv, Tbilisi, and Chisinau’s EU path at the current threat level is no longer tenable and EU candidate status should be granted in June. A hard “no” on EU candidacy status would send the wrong signal and reward Russia’s criminal behavior. Over the past two decades, President Vladimir Putin has sought to undermine and prevent Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova’s Euro-Atlantic integration through disinformation, economic warfare, and military conflict. Putin fears successful democracies on his borders and is seized by the unwillingness of Ukrainians, Georgians, and Moldovans to bow down to Russian imperialism and control. The EU must consider the impact of a clear message of rejection to Moldovans, Ukrainians, and Georgians, who are pinning their hopes, future, and security on being part of the EU that brought greater democracy and prosperity to millions of citizens once living behind an iron curtain.

EU candidacy granted to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova would not be a fast track to membership but a clear perspective and transformation road map, including accelerating democracy, rule of law, and economic reforms. This status and roadmap for membership will be critical as a framework for the EU and its partners, including the United States, look to support Ukrainians with a Marshall Plan for Ukraine that also includes Eastern European partners. It would also be a recognition, too often missing in the moment, that these nations and their people, Ukrainians, Georgians, and Moldovans, not only share the same values but are valued and would be seen as contributors to the success of the European Union, bringing extraordinary talents and expertise that would propel Europe and strengthen democracy in a world that changed fundamentally on February 24. 

Since 2014, after Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity and now in response to Russia’s war against Ukraine, EU and member states have stepped up in an unprecedented way to provide military, economic, humanitarian, and other support. The EU has also been at the forefront in holding Russia and Vladimir Putin accountable through punitive and economic measures. Significant levels of EU support and assistance have also flowed to Moldova and Georgia. Brussels and EU member states have a historic opportunity to take the next step, to support these neighbors by granting candidate status in June to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, and to alter and advance the democratic future and economies of these three European nations that also share a common history and values.