Ukraine’s Accession to the EU: a Near Future or a Distant Dream?

By Bohdana Batsko

2 MB

Key takeaways

  • Strategic Commitment to European Integration: Following its independence, Ukraine embarked on a dedicated path towards deeper integration with the European Union, marked by comprehensive legal and economic reforms aimed at aligning with European standards.
  • Growing Domestic Support for EU Membership: There has been a consistently strong and growing support from the Ukrainian public for the nation’s bid to join the EU, reflecting a national consensus on the importance of European integration for Ukraine’s future.
  • Resilience in the Face of External Aggression: Despite challenges and aggression from Russia, the resolve of the Ukrainian government and its people towards EU accession has only strengthened, showcasing a remarkable level of national resilience.
  • EU Solidarity with Ukraine: The increasing support from the European Union, in response to Ukraine’s efforts and challenges, highlights a significant aspect of Ukraine’s integration journey, with the EU providing substantial solidarity and assistance.
  • Mutual Benefits of Integration: The mutual advantages of Ukraine’s potential EU membership are emphasized, including the promotion of security, the spread of European values, and enhanced prosperity for both Ukraine and the European Union.
  • Synergy between Reforms and Support: The article outlines the crucial role of internal reforms, the unwavering spirit of the Ukrainian populace, and EU support in driving Ukraine’s accession process, painting a hopeful picture of Ukraine’s future within the European family.

Amid Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, the latter is defending its sovereignty and European values. Russia’s aggressive actions pose a threat to Europe and affect the foreign policy of European states. In this context, Ukraine’s aspirations to join the European Union have gained a new significance. In the past two years, Ukraine has acquired the status of a candidate country and is about to start accession negotiations with the EU.

This article analyses the main stages of Ukraine’s European integration, Ukraine’s achievements and accomplishments on its path toward the EU, as well as the problems and challenges that may slow down this process.

Foreign Policy of Independent Ukraine: Challenges of European Integration

After gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine acquired greater freedom of action on the international scene and the ability to determine the course of its foreign policy. As the heir to the economic relations established by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics with the European Communities, independent Ukraine set a goal of deepening its integration with Europe. The main document defining the legal mechanism of bilateral cooperation between Ukraine and the EU was the Partnership and Co-operation Agreement between the European Communities and their Member States, and Ukraine signed in 1994, which entered into force in 1998.

During the first decade, EU-Ukraine relations focused largely on economic cooperation and support for Ukraine’s efforts to strengthen democratic processes. It was only in 1998 that a presidential decree defined the strategic direction, which was to create the preconditions for Ukraine’s accession to the European Union. In turn, in 1999, European states adopted the Common Strategy on Ukraine, which confirmed the recognition of Ukraine’s European aspirations.

The Orange Revolution of 2004, on the one hand, provided for Ukraine’s EU accession prospects. However, Ukraine still had much work to do to convince European leaders and the public to accept it as a future EU member. The challenges for Ukraine in terms of EU policy were that not all EU member states wanted the EU to expand excessively. Moreover, at the beginning of the 21st century, the accession of other states (including Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Hungary, etc.) became both a priority and a challenge for the European agenda. In addition to implementing significant structural, economic, and political changes in the enlargement process, the EU had to take into account the interests of Russia, which perceived the expansion of the EU and NATO borders as a threat to its security. Simultaneously, following the expiration of the Partnership and Co-operation Agreement in 2008, it became necessary to establish a new legal framework and broaden Ukraine’s EU accession strategy. The most appropriate format for implementing Ukraine’s foreign policy priority of European integration was the conclusion of the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine. Such an agreement would have allowed Ukraine to create an effective framework for achieving the maximum degree of cooperation that would have prepared Ukraine for EU accession. This began a long process of negotiations and preparation of an agreement that was to include a free trade area.

The events of November 2013, when the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine was finally due to be signed at the Vilnius Summit, marked a turning point in Ukraine’s history. The pro-Russian President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, refused to sign the Agreement. This provoked a wave of discontent in Ukrainian society and led to the state-wide protests now called the Revolution of Dignity. The latter resulted in the escape of Yanukovych. Simultaneously, Russia, having provoked and taken advantage of Ukraine’s internal instability, occupied Crimea and launched a war in eastern Ukraine. Against the background of these events, Ukraine signed the political part of the Association Agreement in March 2014. In June, the newly elected President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, signed the economic part, which also entailed the creation of a free trade zone between Ukraine and the EU. The Agreement entered into force in 2017 after all EU member states ratified it. The issue of Ukraine’s accession to the EU was left open as the Agreement did not set a timetable for it.

How did the Russian Factor Affect Ukraine’s European Integration?

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, had an unprecedented impact on EU-Ukraine relations. The Russian Federation’s aim to dismantle the Ukrainian state and take over the entire territory of Ukraine was met with resistance not only from Ukrainians but also from many other states, which unequivocally condemned the Russian Federation’s actions since the first day of the war. Rather than hindering Ukraine’s rapprochement with the EU, as Russia had hoped, it accelerated Ukraine’s European integration. It altered the attitude of many European states towards Russia’s role on the European continent. Since 2022, Russia has finally been perceived as a threat to the security of many European states, and Ukraine as a partner committed to European values and a future EU member. At the same time, according to a survey conducted by the Razumkov Center in January 2024, 84% of respondents support Ukraine’s accession to the EU.

In the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Ukraine’s foreign policy has intensified, with a wide range of tasks of fundamental importance. In addition to gaining the political, economic, and military support of a larger number of states, the goal of accelerating EU accession has taken on a significant role. A few months after the outbreak of the full-scale war, Ukraine was granted EU candidate status, and at the end of 2023, the European Council decided to start negotiations on Ukraine’s accession to the EU. In March 2024, the European Council will propose a so-called ‘negotiating framework’ for Ukraine, consisting of a list of negotiating chapters that Ukraine will have to fulfill on its path towards EU membership.

Simultaneously, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has also had a negative effect on Ukraine’s European integration. The heavy human and financial losses are impeding Ukraine’s progress towards meeting several requirements for EU membership (the Copenhagen criteria and the implementation of basic reforms outlined in the Association Agreement). Furthermore, the ongoing war creates obstacles to Ukraine’s economic integration into the EU, as the risks associated with active hostilities on the territory of Ukraine may affect potential investors and business actors who would like to cooperate with Ukrainian companies.

Ukraine’s accession to the EU depends on many internal and external factors. The internal factors are related to the implementation of the additional recommendations set out in the 2023 enlargement package, the full implementation of EU legislation in Ukrainian legislation in 6 groups/35 chapters of EU legislation; external factors that contribute to Ukraine’s accession to the EU include the readiness and consent of all Member States to vote in favor of it, as well as their agreement to sign and ratify the EU-Ukraine Accession Agreement. We will take a closer look at each of these factors.

In June 2022, along with the acquisition of candidate status, Ukraine received from the European Commission a list of seven steps to be completed in order to move to the next stage of European integration. These steps included the following conditions:

1. Reform of the Constitutional Court;

2. Continuation of judicial reform;

3. Strengthening the fight against corruption;

4. Combating money laundering;

5. Implementation of an Anti-Oligarch law;

6. Adoption of a media law;

7. Finalization of the reform of the legal framework for national minorities.

Before the European Council decided to open accession negotiations with Ukraine, the European Commission was to present a report on the implementation of the seven steps of the next EU enlargement package and recommend to the European Council the opening of accession negotiations. In the report of 8 November 2023, the European Commission noted that, despite Russia’s large-scale invasion, Ukraine “has continued to progress on democratic and the rule of law reforms.”

It has been observed that Ukraine has effectively completed measures such as the adoption and implementation of legislation on the selection procedure for judges of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine, in line with recommendations of the Venice Commission; the completion of the integrity check of candidates for the High Council of Justice; bringing anti-money laundering legislation in line with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) standards and adopting a comprehensive strategic plan to reform the entire law enforcement sector; overcoming the influence of vested interests by adopting a law on the protection of national minorities, as well as intensifying efforts to fight corruption and limit the excessive influence of oligarchs. At the same time, Ukraine is expected to further reform legislation on national minorities, as well as to step up efforts to fight corruption and limit the excessive influence of oligarchs.

What Work Needs to Be Done Before Ukraine Becomes a Member?

Despite some level of preparedness, Ukraine still needs to work hard on public administration reform, as little progress has been made in recent years.

As regards multi-level governance, once the territorial part of decentralization has been successfully completed, other elements of the reform remain to be completed. Local self-government in liberated and frontline areas must be gradually re-established.

Regardless of significant challenges, Ukrainian institutions have shown remarkable resilience, as demonstrated by the functioning of the judiciary. At the same time, there is still a need to improve legislation on the selection of judges and to introduce a more transparent procedure for the selection of senior prosecutors, as well as to continue efforts to digitize the judiciary.

As regards anti-corruption reforms, Ukraine has made progress in implementing further legislative, policy, and institutional improvements, including the adoption of a national anti-corruption strategy. To ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of anti-corruption efforts, Ukraine needs to continue to build a solid track record of investigations, prosecutions, and final convictions in high-level corruption cases.

Ukraine’s institutional capacity to fight organized crime has proved resilient and has continued to function, but the legal framework and operational capacity to fight organized crime remain weak.

On fundamental rights, Ukraine has ratified most international conventions for the protection of fundamental rights and generally complies with international human rights instruments. At the beginning of the large-scale invasion, Ukraine imposed martial law, which resulted in some restrictions on rights and freedoms, but these have remained proportionate to actual needs and have been applied with caution.

In the area of freedom of expression, Ukrainian citizens enjoy freedom of expression and have access to critical media. At the same time, new ways of ensuring a post-war structure of pluralistic and independent media should be envisaged, which would help to solve the current problem of reduced access of the population to pluralistic media in Ukraine during the war.

Regarding the domestic economic situation, monetary policy, general economic management, and the institutional environment have faced significant challenges since the full-scale invasion. Despite these challenges, Ukraine has responded quickly, given its overall stability, although circumstances have also caused some temporary impediments to several important elements of a functioning market economy. Some progress has been made in several areas, such as financial services, the free movement of goods, the way services are provided, and company law. At the same time, progress has been limited in the areas of competition policy and consumer and health protection.

Particular attention should be given to issues related to competitive pressures and market forces within the EU. Although trade integration with the EU has recently developed, the implementation of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) remains rather low. Despite the strengthening of good bilateral relations with neighboring EU member states during the Russian-Ukrainian war, relations between Ukraine and Poland have deteriorated in recent months following protests by Polish farmers against the export of Ukrainian agricultural products to Poland and other EU countries without tariffs. This critical point in the relationship poses many challenges for both economies and for Ukraine’s European integration, which needs to maintain good relations with all EU member states.

Regardless of the green agenda, Ukraine has made good progress in the environment and energy sectors, while progress on climate change and transport policy has been limited.

Ukraine must continue to make efforts to improve regional policy and coordinate structural instruments, as well as financial and budgetary provisions. Progress has been made in the areas of resources, agriculture, and cohesion.

How Prepared Are the Member States for EU Enlargement?

The question of member states’ readiness to vote in favor of Ukraine’s accession to the EU, to agree, sign, and ratify the EU-Ukraine Accession Agreement, is of fundamental importance, as the accession of new members to the EU requires political consensus. Moreover, EU member states must be ready not only to give a genuine green light to Ukraine’s accession to the bloc but also to work together on the EU enlargement strategy and improve the EU’s institutional capacity to increase the number of member states.

According to a survey conducted in November 2023 by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) among policy-makers and political thinkers in all EU member states, there is increasing support for EU enlargement within the bloc. Throughout the history of the European Communities and, subsequently, the European Union, the debate on enlargement has always been lively and controversial. Concerns related to the accession of new members to the bloc were generally motivated by economic consequences, unforeseeable transformation risks, possible changes in the balance of power on the European continent, national interests, and public opinion.

In current geopolitical circumstances, many EU leaders consider that EU enlargement, including Ukraine’s accession to the EU, can be a coherent way to respond to challenges. EU enlargement could help assert its subjectivity and influence in countering external threats, including those from Russia. Simultaneously, central and eastern EU member states believe that ensuring Ukraine’s security should be a precondition for EU enlargement. For them, Ukraine’s accession to the EU without NATO guarantees will not provide new members with a satisfactory level of security and stability.

The only EU member state that does not support Ukraine’s EU membership is Hungary. Hungary’s current prime minister, Viktor Orbán, is the closest European ally of the Russian president, which highlights Hungary’s cautious policy towards Russia. Orbán opposes EU sanctions on Russian oil and gas and refuses to allow EU or NATO military aid into Ukraine. Additionally, bilateral relations between Hungary and Ukraine have been strained over minority issues. In this regard, Ukraine had to make concessions to Hungary and adopt amendments to a number of laws in line with European Commission recommendations. In this way, Ukraine has ironed out some contradictions in Ukrainian-Hungarian relations and demonstrated its determination to move towards the EU.

As the Ukrainian issue remains a lever for Viktor Orbán’s influence in the EU, other EU member states must maintain solidarity and find ways to circumvent Hungary’s veto. Some success in this regard was demonstrated during the vote to open negotiations on Ukraine’s accession to the EU when European leaders persuaded Orbán to leave the room and voted unanimously. In fact, they used the tool of ‘constructive abstention,’ which allowed them to reach a consensus and approval of the decision.


To a large extent, the possibility of Ukraine’s accession to the European Union depends on the efforts of both sides to move towards EU enlargement and on Ukraine’s readiness to do its homework. On the one hand, the Russian-Ukrainian war complicates work in certain areas of European integration, but on the other hand, it considerably accelerates many processes that were previously proceeding relatively slowly. This applies to the position of the member states on Ukraine’s accession to the EU.

Ukraine’s heroic resistance to Russian aggression, as well as its willingness and persistence to move towards European integration, are impressive. If these positive trends continue, Ukraine’s accession to the EU could happen in the near future and promises to strengthen the security of European states, including Ukraine, establish the spread of European values across the continent, and ensure Europe’s prosperity.

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