Big deal: What does EU candidate status actually mean for Ukraine?

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Even as it fights Russia’s invasion, Ukraine is on track to be granted the status of a candidate for EU membership.

The European Commission on Friday recommended conferring the coveted status on both Ukraine and Moldova, “on the understanding” that they would carry out reforms to bolster the rule of law and meet EU standards in a range of other areas.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Twitter hailed the signal from Brussels as “the 1st step on the EU membership path that’ll certainly bring our Victory closer.”

Following a thumbs-up from Germany, France and Italy, EU heads of state and government are poised to endorse the Commission’s recommendation for Ukraine and Moldova at a summit next week — although they may still wrangle a bit on what strings to attach.

But how big a deal is candidate status really? POLITICO has all you need to know…

What does membership candidate status mean?

It’s a first official step on the road to EU membership — but that road can be long and arduous and there’s no guarantee that a candidate will ultimately be accepted into the club.

While the European Commission recommends whether the EU should grant this status to an applicant, the authority to do so rests with EU member governments, which must act unanimously to give their approval.

Candidate status also doesn’t mean an automatic start to accession negotiations — that generally comes later and, again, requires the approval of all EU member states. Commission officials were clear on Friday that Ukraine and Moldova would each have some heavy lifting to do before membership talks will begin.

However, candidate status does carry major cachet. For countries aspiring to be part of Europe’s most important political and economic club, candidate status amounts to a first seal of approval.

Naming Ukraine as a candidate country would also send a strong signal to Russia — that the EU won’t be intimidated by Moscow and is ready to welcome Kyiv as a member.

Who are the current membership candidates?

Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey all have the status of membership candidates.

Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are classed as “potential candidates.”

The Commission said on Friday that Georgia should be “given the perspective to become a member of the European Union” but not yet granted candidate status.

What’s happening with the current candidates?

Turkey was granted candidate status in 1999 and began accession talks in 2005. But its membership bid has stalled as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has grown increasingly autocratic and turned away from the West.

Montenegro and Serbia have been in accession negotiations since 2012 and 2014 respectively. Neither is close to wrapping up the process and joining the EU.

The EU first bestowed candidate status on North Macedonia (then known as the Republic of Macedonia) in 2005, and on Albania in 2014. The European Council agreed to open membership negotiations with both countries in March 2020 but those talks have yet to begin, mainly due to a bilateral dispute between Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, and North Macedonia.

So how does the accession process work?

Would-be members enter into talks that last for years. Candidates must adopt democratic norms and undertake reforms to meet EU rules, regulations, and standards in a wide range of areas including the economy and the rule of law.

The negotiations are grouped into “chapters” for different policy areas and a candidate can only conclude a chapter when all EU members agree it has ticked the necessary boxes.

When a country is deemed to have closed all the chapters, once again all EU governments have to sign off before that country can finally be admitted as an EU member.

Simple as that?

Not really. There’s a lot of politics involved.

Some EU countries have become deeply skeptical about enlargement and have looked for ways to slow down any moves toward adding new members.

In some cases, member states have argued that some newer EU countries that met all the criteria on paper haven’t lived up to them in practice after being admitted. Privately at least, some officials have questioned whether countries such as Western Balkan states will ever really meet the requirements to join.

They’ve also insisted the EU can’t seriously contemplate adding more countries until it overhauls its own unwieldy decision-making, already creaking under the weight of 27 member states.

In recent years, such skeptics have included the Netherlands, Denmark and France — but they are hardly the only ones.

Other countries, including Germany, Italy and Central European members, have argued that enlargement is a geopolitical imperative. They note that it encourages would-be members in the EU’s neighborhood to become more democratic. Excluding these countries from membership, they say, risks expanding the influence of rival powers such as Russia.

How long does it take to become an EU member?

It all depends on how quickly the negotiations start and how smoothly they go. That, in turn, depends on both the would-be member and the EU’s own governments.

Among the speediest countries to join the EU were Sweden and Finland. They took roughly three years from submitting their applications to becoming members of the bloc.

Some of the EU’s newest members took much longer to get through the process — more than 10 years each for Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia.

So what about Ukraine and Moldova?

The EU has never granted candidate status to a country in the midst of a full-scale war, and many officials say it’s unrealistic to expect Ukraine’s membership bid to move forward until peace is restored in the country.

That said, the country had been working aggressively to adopt the EU’s laws and standards, collectively known as the acquis, for about eight years, ever since it signed a political association agreement and a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with Brussels.

EU officials said Ukraine has already adopted 70 percent of the acquis. Moldova may have a bit more work to do, and faces the added complication of its breakaway region of Transnistria, controlled by Russian-backed separatists. Just as there is no way to predict when or how the war will end, it seems impossible to predict how long it could take Ukraine and Moldova to become EU members.

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