European leaders can’t seem to agree whether Ukraine can join the European Union. Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said his country is on a two-year timeline for membership, while French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron has estimated it will take “decades.” Many agree, however, that membership will take a lot of hard work for Ukraine, including reaching a peace settlement with Russia in the still very active war.
But what could Ukraine look like if it joined the E.U.—and how, in turn, could its inclusion change the organization?
How would joining the E.U. change Ukraine?
Even those who are optimistic about Ukraine’s chances of joining the E.U. argue that the process will be challenging. Ukraine would need to conduct an extensive set of reforms, including fighting corruption, incorporating E.U. law, and reforming its judiciary.
“If Ukraine is at the point where it joins the European Union, it will already be dramatically changed. Ukraine will not get in as charity,” says Maria Popova, an associate professor at McGill University studying political development in Ukraine and the Russo-Ukrainian War. These changes would come with tremendous value for Ukrainians. For instance, says Popova, while public trust in the judiciary is very low, reform could lead to an “independent, impartial, effective judiciary.”
These reforms began to take shape when Ukraine signed an association agreement with the E.U. in 2014. Major efforts have been made since to fight corruption, move power from the central government to municipalities, and to strengthen the rule of law, says Milada Vachudova, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has studied post-communist countries joining the E.U.
Vachudova says Ukraine has two major strengths that will help its candidacy: the government has already made reform a priority, and its citizens are committed. “The countries that have really benefited from this process have a sense of national consensus, unity of purpose to do that hard work, and there’s no question that the Ukrainians have that,” she says.
Upon joining the E.U., Ukraine would receive many of the same benefits as other E.U. states, such as freedom of movement, joining European decision-making, and the opportunity to study in other countries, says Popova.
It would also be a major psychological victory for the country. For many Ukrainians, the war with Russia has confirmed that Ukraine should turn to Europe for its future. “It will be so valuable because so many people will have died for it, ” says Popova.
How would including Ukraine change the E.U.?
Ukraine’s population would make it one of the larger countries in the organization. As of 2021, nearly 44 million people lived in Ukraine—almost the same number as in Spain, and more than in Poland—although about 8 million Ukrainians have since fled as refugees.
Ukraine must survive as a democracy and reach a settlement with Russia before it joins the E.U., says Daniela Schwarzer, executive director for Open Society–Europe and Central Asia. The experience of the invasion could even make Ukraine a major asset as a member, given a highly modern military with extensive combat experience, explains Schwarzer.
“It will have one of the best-trained armies on the continent,” she says. “It will contribute in many ways to Europe, in security terms, in terms of fending off digital warfare. I think Ukraine is among the countries other E.U. countries can learn from, frankly.”
Undoubtedly, Ukraine would also bring a very strong perspective on Russia to the group. Popova argues that they would strengthen the contingent of European nations who feel that Russia must be contained. While some countries, such as Germany and France, have historically wanted to improve their relationship with Russia—and may be keen to do so if Russia becomes more democratic one day—Ukraine would need to see that Russia has “repudiated its imperialist designs on the neighborhood before any re-engagement is possible.”
“Ukraine in the E.U. will be a strong advocate for containing Russia, perceiving it as a threat to European security, for as long as there is proof otherwise,” says Popova.