BRUSSELS — European Union leaders will meet on Thursday to put Ukraine on a path toward joining the bloc, signaling to the embattled nation — and to Russia — that they expect Ukraine to win the benefits of being in the club, even if it takes a decade or longer to fully join.
The leaders of Germany, France and Italy, the largest E.U. nations, as well as Romania, gave a preview of that decision in a visit to Kyiv last week, saying that they supported letting Ukraine become a candidate for membership. Still, a handful of member countries needed to be convinced that despite Ukraine’s unreadiness to join the union, it was important to give it the prospect.
The decision considered likely on Thursday would grant Ukraine candidate status, starting what could be a long road; Turkey has been a candidate for 21 years but is still not a member. In a system that works by consensus, each member nation effectively has a veto over any new members.
The Netherlands and a handful of smaller members have been skeptical about giving unconditional candidate status to Ukraine right away, for a variety of reasons. Dutch voters rejected the prospect of Ukrainian E.U. membership in a 2016 referendum, and their leaders had been hard-pressed to ignore that vote, despite large and sustained public support for Ukraine in its current fight against Russia’s invasion.
In addition, E.U. candidacy is a milestone but little else. It signals that a nation is in position, if certain conditions are met, to begin a very detailed, painstaking and yearslong process of reforms and negotiations with the bloc, with a view to eventually joining.
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It does, however, prepare the ground for gradual transfer of E.U. funds and expertise to help reforms. By the time Ukraine joins, perhaps a decade or more from now, it could well be that the bloc has developed into a more military-oriented club, but for now it is nowhere near a substitute for NATO, nor a provider of any meaningful defense assurances or capabilities.
Many countries are eager to keep the bloc from growing, partly because its 27 members already find it at times exceedingly hard to agree on vital issues such as democratic freedoms, economic reforms and the role of the courts. Ukraine’s history of corruption has also sown doubts, and some E.U. members are concerned about the bloc’s capacity to absorb a country of Ukraine’s size and population, citing long-term economic and social repercussions.
Some European nations would also like to see Albania and North Macedonia, Balkan nations that have been candidates for more than a decade, admitted to the bloc before Ukraine.
Officials and diplomats speaking in briefings before the summit, though, said that the momentum was in favor of accepting Ukraine’s candidate status and working out the messy details later, a milestone that was hard to imagine reaching earlier in the war.
Moldova, a neighboring country that also applied for candidacy, was likely to get the support of the E.U. leaders, too.
The move is bound to irritate Russia, which has described Ukraine’s aspirations to align itself fully with Western institutions such as NATO and the European Union as a provocation and interference in its sphere of influence. It will also force the European Union to become more military-oriented, expanding on a weak area in its repertoire, considering that the bloc is primarily focused on economics and free trade.
E.U. leaders are expected to announce their decision during their meeting on Thursday afternoon. On Friday, they are expected to grapple with some of the toughest economic implications of the war in Ukraine, including food and fuel shortages and skyrocketing prices.