Olga Stefanishyna doesn’t believe that rapid accession to the European Union would end the Russian war against her country. Nevertheless, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister wants candidate status for her country as soon as possible. She sees it as a sign of respect – a recognition of the fact that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was from the very beginning a response to the country’s desire to move closer to the EU.
"It would show that our choice is respected," she says. The "Ukrainian people chose to turn to the EU and have done a lot for accession. Now this decision is challenged by military aggression with all the war crimes."
DER SPIEGEL reached Stefanishyna by video call in her Kyiv office on Wednesday evening. The flags of the EU and Ukraine are nestled together behind her desk. Stefanishyna is responsible for European and trans-Atlantic relations and European integration in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government.
She and President Zelenskyy last Monday presented nine thick volumes to the EU containing answers to the EU accession questionnaire, essentially explanations for why Ukraine should be part of the EU. The Ukrainians filled it out in record time. Zelenskyy had signed Ukraine’s application to join the EU during the first days of the attack on Kyiv in a video livestream.
"Any hesitations would be a sign of weakness," says Stefanishyna. It would be another triumph for Russia if, after the option of joining NATO, the option of EU membership were now to disappear as well.
Different Messaging from Brussels and Berlin
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU has been remarkably united against the aggressor Russia. On the question of EU accession, however, it is striking how different the messages sent from Europe to Kyiv this week have been.
"We feel in our heart that Ukraine, through its fight and its courage, is already today a member of our Europe, of our family and of our union," French President Emmanuel Macron told members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Monday. But then he made it clear that there is a long way to go from being an emotional favorite to being an actual member. "We all know perfectly well that the process which would allow them to join, would in reality take several years, and most likely several decades."
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has a completely different time horizon in mind. On the same days of Macron’s speech in Strasbourg, she had herself photographed during a video call with Zelenskyy . She announced that the Commission would decide on Ukraine’s candidate status as early as June. That would be the first step on the road to full membership in the EU.
Von der Leyen’s words suggest that Ukraine's potential candidate status is still up for consideration in Brussels. In reality, though, the decision has already been made. The Commission president has been determined for some time to open up a path to succession for Kyiv.
By doing so, the EU is heading toward an internal conflict at an important stage of the war – and it is not one with an easy solution. The dispute over an oil embargo is about timelines, financial aid, the usual conflicts of interest within the EU. The EU is skilled at finding compromises in those kinds disputes.
Membership in the Democratic World
The question of how to deal with Ukraine’s desire for accession, on the other hand, touches on more fundamental issues: Should the EU again issue an accession promise that may not ultimately be fulfilled? As seen in the Western Balkans, this can lead to serious disappointment. Furthermore, with 27 members, the EU is already rather unwieldy – a problem about which many member states are concerned, including Germany and France.
Von der Leyen and eastern EU member states like Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, on the other hand, believe that the EU must provide Ukraine with all possible assistance in the fight against Russian aggression. They argue that the main thing right now is that Kyiv win the war. And that granting candidate status would not be a preliminary decision for accession, but it would assure Ukraine of moral support in hard times and send a clear message to Russia.
For most Eastern Europeans, membership in the EU means more than just material benefits. Above all, it stands for belonging to the democratic world, the late step out of the shadow of World War II and the Cold War. And Ukraine doesn’t want to be deprived of that.
When the Commission head announces Kyiv’s candidate status in June, the ball will then be in court of the leaders of the EU member states. They must decide whether to follow the recommendation – and they must agree on it unanimously. Do EU leaders, even those who are skeptical, then really want to publicly position themselves against an accession perspective for Ukraine in the midst of war? This issue will also determine the future shape of relations between Ukraine and Europe.
The majority of member states already made clear at an informal summit meeting in Versailles in March that they did not think much of the fast-track procedure. "Can we open a membership procedure with a country at war?" Macron asked at the time. "I don’t think so."
Von der Leyen, for her part, has ignored these concerns. At a meeting with Zelenskyy in Kyiv, she was accompanied by senior Commission officials to discuss details of the membership application with the Ukrainian government. The Commission is helping the Ukrainians to answer the questionnaire that every country must complete on the road to become an EU member.
Normally, it takes up to a year and a half to decide on the issue of candidate status. For there to be any chance at all of keeping to von der Leyen’s ambitious timetable, the relevant Commission staff are having to work overtime and go through the entire bureaucratic procedure with their Ukrainian colleagues, even on weekends.
Zelenskyy told von der Leyen in a phone call that the perspective of EU accession is also important for troop morale. Candidate status would, in the eyes of the Commission head, strengthen Ukraine’s fighting capacity and demonstrate to the Russians that the EU is resolutely rallying behind Kyiv. At the moment, that is her top priority.
Officials in Brussels know that the road from candidate status to full membership is long. Von der Leyen sees the decision as being an eminently political one. And she believes bureaucratic objections must take a back seat.
Lobbying Trips in the East
Eastern European member states are united in their support for von der Leyen’s push. Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a number of top politicians from Estonia to Bulgaria have spoken out in favor of quickly bringing the invaded country closer to the EU. "Ukraine should get candidate status as soon as possible,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said on Wednesday after a meeting with his Slovak counterpart Zuzana Čaputová. Both agreed to make "lobbying trips" for the idea to Western EU partners.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in Kyiv this weekFoto: IMAGO/Janine Schmitz/photothek.de / IMAGO/photothek
They have their work cut out. In both Germany and France, but also in the Netherlands, von der Leyen's approach is viewed skeptically. Officially, both governments are saying nothing more about the question of candidate status, insisting that it is a matter for the European Commission.
And during Macron’s visit to Berlin on Monday, Germany Chancellor Olaf Scholz accompanied his guest to the Brandenburg Gate, which was illuminated in Ukraine’s national colors. Both assured Ukraine of their solidarity, but they stopped short of promising candidate status or rapid EU accession.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was even more outspoken on Tuesday during a visit to Ukraine, where she warned against empty promises in the accession debate. She said there can be no "short cut” for Ukraine on its path to EU membership.
The German government fears that another accession process that drags on for decades could damage the EU’s reputation. Government sources in Berlin point to the Western Balkans, where North Macedonia, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro have been waiting in vain for years to be admitted to the EU. They argue that the massive disappointment there is now being exploited by Russia for its own benefit. And that it is just as unacceptable to grant Ukraine candidate status in a fast-track procedure, but to delay countries like Bosnia or Moldova, which also want to join the EU.
Yes To Ukraine, But No To Bosnia or Moldova?
Berlin and Paris also agree that the EU needs to be reformed. Both countries want to abolish the veto rights of individual countries on important issues, such as foreign and security policy in an attempt to make the EU more responsive. That shift, though, is unlikely – since it must be passed unanimously.
Despite the political weight that Germany and France have in the EU, there is much to suggest that von der Leyen and the Eastern Europeans will prevail. Scholz is in a position of having to defend himself against accusations of being too hesitant in supporting Ukraine and he is wary of doing anything to further fuel that perception. And Ukraine has made it clear that it would consider a rejection of candidate status to be an affront.
Ukrainian political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko warns that a rejection of Ukraine would play into Russia's hands and that it would harm Ukraine and also the European Union itself. Fesenko says support for EU membership has grown extremely strong among Ukrainians since the war began.
Given this sentiment, it is hard to imagine EU leaders flat out rejecting candidate status for Ukraine. Another option could be that of delaying a decision in order to avoid openly snubbing Kyiv.
In Strasbourg, Macron also raised the possibility of another alternative. He suggested the creation of "a European political community," a kind of waiting room to the EU into which aspiring members would enter. This space could also include the United Kingdom and should ensure cooperation on issues such as security, energy supply and the free movement of people. Joining it, though, "would not necessarily prejudge future accession to the European Union," the French president stressed.
His proposal left many questions unanswered. It is unclear, for example, how the new status would differ from that already enjoyed today by countries such as Switzerland or Norway.
Migration expert Gerald Knaus, who helped prepare the EU’s refugee deal with Turkey, presented a pragmatic solution at the Chancellery. In his view, the EU should establish a new European Economic Community that Ukraine, Moldova and the Western Balkan states could join. This would include economic integration and allow the freedom of movement that permits citizens of member states to live and work where they choose across the EU. Negotiations could then continue on full EU membership at a later date.
But even if that were politically feasible, the plan would not meet with widespread acceptance in Ukraine. Deputy Prime Minister Stefanishyna can’t imagine anything other than full membership. We don’t know what that is supposed to mean, she said of Macron’s proposal. Already in the past, she noted, the EU and Ukraine had coordinated at all levels possible below the status of accession candidate.
Former Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin concurs with. Some form of loose cooperation cannot be a substitute for Ukraine’s accession process, says Klimkin, who was part of the first pro-European cabinet after the fall of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Klimkin says that is the red line for everyone in Kyiv, the political leadership and all Ukrainians. Ukraine, he says, is not fighting this war for second or third-class treatment.