Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy is calling for urgent EU membership—but is that even possible?

March 1, 2022, 12:54 PM UTC

As Ukraine suffers from its lack of membership in one international organization with a mutual defense pact—NATO—Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is pushing to join another.

In an urgent video message posted on Monday, Zelenskyy made a stark appeal to his neighbors to the west: Let the country join the European Union—and fast.

“We are grateful for our partners for being with us. But our goal is to be with all Europeans and, most importantly, to be equal,” he said, wearing what has become his trademark olive-green sweatshirt. “I am confident that it is fair. I am confident that we have deserved it. I am confident that this is all possible.”

On Tuesday afternoon, he repeated his urgent request during an emergency session of the EU Parliament in Brussels. “Nobody is going to break us,” he said by video link, in a highly charged speech that won a long standing ovation from lawmakers. “We are fighting for our freedoms, for our lives, and now, for our survival…Prove that you are with us. And then life will win over death.”

With Russian tanks rolling across his country and bombs hitting civilian neighborhoods, Zelenskyy has strong reason to want to join the 27-nation bloc. The EU treaty includes a mutual defense pact similar to NATO’s, in which its members agree to fight militarily against an outside attack on any one of its countries. If Ukraine were in the EU, Russia would now be facing massive firepower from France, Germany, and others, instead of the Ukrainian military alone. Until now, Ukraine has on paper been a “neutral” country, remaining outside both the EU and NATO.

The consequences have been painfully clear this past week. “I don’t think anyone is happy about neutral status,” former Ukraine Deputy Minister of Justice and European Integration Sergei Petukhov told France 24 TV on Monday. “It means being exposed to Russian aggression at any point in time.”

Will the EU let in Ukraine?

Not likely, at least for a long while.

EU leaders have hailed Zelenskyy’s heroic defiance and sound open to the idea—on the surface. The presidents of eight EU countries in Eastern Europe signed a letter on Monday night urging immediate talks on Ukraine’s membership. And on Sunday, EU President Ursula von der Leyen said in an interview, “Ukraine is one of us, and we want them in the EU…Over time, they belong to us.”

But Ukraine does not have time. With Russia bombarding its cities, it needs quick action, from a bloc whose decision-making moves at a snail’s pace.

That is one reason the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell dismissed any idea of fast-track membership for Ukraine, saying on Monday, “Membership is something that will take a lot of years. We have to provide an answer for the coming hours, not the coming years.”

Despite the EU leaders’ gushing support, Zelenskyy could also struggle to win approval for Ukraine’s membership—which requires the agreement of all 27 nations (down from 28, since the U.K. exited last year)—when and if it comes up for a vote. Charles Michel, who heads the European Council of EU leaders, cautioned that there were “different opinions and sensitivities within the EU about enlargement.”

That is an understatement. “Accession,” as new membership is called, is one of the most bitterly divisive issues in Europe, and the EU’s unshakable unity against Vladimir Putin could fray badly once leaders start debating Ukraine joining. French President Emmanuel Macron, who is the current rotating head of the EU, has said he would vote against all new membership applications until the EU implements “deep reform to the way we function institutionally.” Those reforms, like accelerated decision-making and stronger human rights protections in some countries, have yet to occur.

For now, Ukraine has only an “association agreement” with the EU, giving it access to the single market. If and when its membership application is formally accepted, it faces lengthy scrutiny and structural reforms, as well as possible demands from individual countries. Greece, for example, fought for 15 years to have Macedonia change its name to North Macedonia, as a condition for it joining the EU. North Macedonia changed its name in 2020, but it is still waiting to join.

So what else can Europe do?

With the most devastating military conflict in Europe in generations, the EU sees Russia’s invasion as a dire threat to its members, fearing that if Russia wins the war, it would embolden it to attack neighboring EU countries like the Baltic states or even Poland. To their credit, EU leaders have rushed in extraordinary measures—effectively joining the war effort, without deploying soldiers.

For the first time in EU history, it is financing a war by a non-EU member, agreeing on Monday to spend €500 million on fighter jets and other weaponry for Ukraine to use in its fight against Russia. It has also blocked transactions with Russia’s central bank; banned Russian aircraft, including oligarchs’ private jets, from EU airspace; shut down transmission by Putin’s propaganda networks Russia Today and Sputnik; and sanctioned top Putin aides.

In addition, Ukraine’s neighbors have agreed to let in hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the war, allowing them to stay for three years without requiring them to apply for asylum. “This is a watershed moment,” von der Leyen said.

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