Why Ukraine’s Bid for E.U. Membership Could Take Decades

Ukraine’s bid to join the E.U. received a boost Friday after the bloc’s executive arm recommended that the embattled country deserves to become a candidate for membership.

The endorsement by the European Commission (EC) sends a strong signal of solidarity with Ukraine following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 24 full-scale invasion of the country. Next, the heads of each 27 E.U. countries will consider this recommendation. The next step is for the leaders of all 27 E.U. member countries to discuss this recommendation during a June 23-24 meeting.

“Ukraine should be welcomed as a candidate country,” EC President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement on the decision. “This is on the understanding that good work has been done but important work remains to be done. This entire process is merit-based. It follows the rules and all progress rests entirely with Ukraine. So it is Ukraine that has it in its hands.”

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The decision comes a day after the leaders of Germany, France, Italy, and Romania became the latest of many global leaders to meet in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who described it as a “truly historic” day. “Tomorrow and the day after tomorrow there will also be a lot of news for Ukraine, and I believe that it will be positive,” he said.

And given that Ukraine’s drift toward Europe and prospective membership of NATO is what kicked off Putin’s aggression, the EC’s decision represents yet another owngoal for the autocrat.

“The thing that Putin really has to worry about is the E.U., rather than NATO,” Robert Hunter, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, tells TIME. “NATO is never going to attack anybody, but the E.U. Russia is made to look dumb by this standard. Putin’s real concern is about contagion. Because he saw contagion is what led the Soviet Union to collapse, when they tried to talk about opening up the Soviet economy, and people said, ‘why don’t we discuss something else, like freedom to talk?’”

Still, experts warn the EC’s decision is only a tentative step on a path that could take years to complete. While there is plenty of support for Ukraine within the E.U., the country’s candidacy comes against a backdrop of mounting Euroskepticism.

E.U. to be extended Membership would be a leapfrog for Ukraine, which is primarily a result of the Balkan states. So, the bloc has to walk a delicate line between showing solidarity and favoritism, while also demonstrating solidarity. Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer is one leader who has said Ukraine shouldn’t have preference over Western Balkans states such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, though he did back an “intermediate” membership for the country.

In Kyiv, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the “very demanding” process could take years given that Ukraine needs to make progress on corruption and improving the rule of law. What’s more, ripping up a slow-go approach by hastening Ukraine’s accession risks sowing widespread discord. It was the euro-area’s sovereign debt crisis in 2010, the European migration crisis of 2015, and then the Brexit referendum one year later that heightened the impression that the E.U. is a dangerous entity. It would be wise to grow cautiously. Only Ukraine and Georgia applied for E.U. membership in a hurry, as did Moldova and Georgia. membership in March and accepting all of their memberships risks drastically altering the bloc’s composition. On Friday, the EC approved Georgia and Moldova’s candidate status also.

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All E.U. members must approve the beginning of accession negotiations. Plans can be obstructed by the common historic baggage of nations. North Macedonia, for one, gained candidate status in 2005 though its progress has stalled—despite changing its official name from the Republic of Macedonia to appease Greece, which objected given its own province of Macedonia—most recently because Bulgaria threw up a last-minute objection related to language and ethnicity.

Turkey has applied for E.U. membership, having already indicated that it could block the recent NATO applications of Finland and Sweden. Although it was granted candidate status in 1999, the country joined E.U. in 1987. Negotiations for membership began only in 2005. The process has been slowed down by numerous disputes within the E.U. members. “European negotiations with Turkey on membership were always [rubbish], it was never going to happen,” says Hunter. “They strung [Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan]We stayed there for quite some time until finally the Turks got us. [the message].”

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