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What Ukraine’s EU Candidacy Means, and What’s Ahead 

Ukraine has a path to membership in the European Union after the bloc’s leaders granted it candidacy status. Joining the EU would solidify Ukraine’s westward orientation, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to thwart by force. Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbor, with whom it shares a long history and cultural affinity, spurred an effort by European nations to forge ties with Ukraine at a pace barely imaginable before the war began. But the road to EU accession can be lengthy, with obstacles along the way, including a lack of unity among its members about enlargement.

1. What does candidacy status mean?

A country given candidacy status has the prospect of joining if it meets the EU’s political and economic criteria. Formal negotiations can begin only once the candidate nation fulfills those conditions. In Ukraine’s case, the EU’s initial road map requires steps to fight corruption, break the control of oligarchs over the economy and make rules for selecting judges. The European Commission will monitor progress. Once talks start, the parties have to work through 35 so-called chapters covering everything from the environment to markets to ensure Ukraine’s legislation and standards are aligned with the EU’s. 

2. How long does the process take?

It’s open-ended. Croatia, the EU’s newest member, waited 10 years before its bid was formally accepted. Turkey has been a candidate since 1999, though its government’s increasing authoritarianism under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has moved it further off the EU track. The bloc’s leaders have made clear that there is no fast track. But Ukraine at least won candidacy status just four months after President Volodymyr Zelenskiy formally applied. For comparison, Albania, another EU candidate, had to wait five years after applying to be granted candidacy. 

3. How did Ukraine gain candidacy status so quickly?

Once a republic of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has long had EU ambitions, though any prospect of membership seemed a long way off. Russia’s military assault instantly changed the calculus. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen insisted that Kyiv belongs within the “European family.” Several member states were reticent to offer Ukraine full candidacy ahead of existing applicants. The breakthrough came with a high-level visit in June to Kyiv by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi -- all of whom promised their support for Ukraine’s bid.  

4. Can Ukraine meet the EU’s demands?

Its most challenging task will be to tackle corruption that’s become endemic. Anti-graft bodies set up under agreements with global partners, including the International Monetary Fund, have yielded few results, with no prosecutions against top officials accused of corruption. That includes promised investigations into figures tied to toppled Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych -- a group renowned for their luxury mansions and cars. The nation’s media landscape is almost entirely in the hands of billionaire oligarchs. Before the war, foreign businesses consistently cited the compromised court system as a barrier to investment. Ukraine ranks 122nd out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. 

5. Do Ukrainians support joining the EU?

The Ukrainian public’s tilt toward Europe has been the driving force of tensions with Russia at least since the 2004 Orange Revolution, which overturned the initially fraudulent election of Yanukovych. When the Kremlin-backed leader, who eventually came to power in 2010, reneged on an EU cooperation treaty at Putin’s behest in 2013, public outrage grew into the Maidan Revolution, which ousted his government. Still, support for EU membership wasn’t always universal. As recently as January, before Russia’s invasion, a survey by the Rating Group pollster showed that 65% of respondents favored joining. A June 18-19 Rating poll showed that figure had jumped to 87%. The survey showed broad support among all regions and age groups. 

6. Who else is trying to join the EU?

Moldova, another former Soviet republic partially occupied by Russian troops, also received candidacy (Georgia was offered a roadmap with conditions to obtain it). The two effectively jumped the line. Bosnia-Herzegovina, a former Yugoslav republic racked by war in the 1990s, and Kosovo, a former Serbian province not recognized by a handful of EU members, have sought EU accession since 2016 but have yet to receive an invitation. Other nations have made it in the door, but have been waiting for years for the talks to begin or to inch forward, including Montenegro, Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has excoriated the lack of progress, particularly a blockade by Bulgaria on North Macedonia’s advancement, saying at a summit in Brussels that the deadlock is in effect offering “unsolicited help” to Putin by hindering a NATO member. Their frustrations with the application could foreshadow what Ukraine will contend with. 

7. Who’s not sold on EU enlargement?

The Balkan frustration derives from a sense among European leaders that expanding the bloc will create additional problems, especially given the standoff over the rule of law with EU members Hungary and Poland -- and the struggle in member states such as Romania and Bulgaria to tackle corruption. A sixth round of sanctions against Russia was held up primarily by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. France’s Macron, though he gave the nod to Ukraine’s candidacy, has been blunt about “enlargement fatigue.” He’s proposed a “European political community” as a kind of antechamber to full membership for applicants, though the details have been fuzzy. Member states including the Netherlands and Denmark had also expressed reservations on Ukraine’s accession prospects. 

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