For one thing, joining it takes forever.
After a month of unleashing a nearly endless barrage of attacks on Ukraine, Russia continues to move forward with its devastating invasion on the nation. As of April 5, several cities are under siege, with thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians dying in the crosshairs of war, and millions of refugees fleeing their homes to escape violence. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has previously appealed to the European Union (EU) for support, which begs the question — wait, why isn’t Ukraine already a member? According to an expert, the conflict is much more complicated than it seems.
The EU is an economic and political alliance of, well, European nations — originally founded in 1957 with six members, including Belgium, France, Germany (at the time West Germany), Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, the union has since grown to 27 countries which share a common currency, loose borders, and a mutual defense policy. The most recent country to enter the union was Croatia in 2013, but Ukraine has been calling for admittance since the 1990s. On Feb. 28, just four days after the Russian invasion began, Zelenskyy signed an application for Ukraine's expedited membership to the EU. “Our goal is to be with all Europeans and, most importantly, to be equal,” he said in a Feb. 28 address, per The Guardian. “I am confident that it is fair. I am confident we have deserved it. I am confident that all this is possible.” But while the European Commission has stated it stands in solidarity with Ukraine, as of early April, it hasn’t extended membership to the nation.
According to Amy Verdun, Ph.D, professor of political science at the University of Victoria in Canada, this is because the EU’s existing members aren’t too keen on fanning the flames of conflict between Russia and Western Europe: Since Ukraine formally declared its independence from the Soviet Union after its 1991 dissolution, there’s been a steady popular movement toward Westernization in the country — something Russian political leaders have never been too happy about. “[Ukraine] has been seeking [a] closer relationship with the EU since the beginning of its independence,” Verdun says. However, “Russia felt threatened by Ukraine coming closer to the [West].” Three other former Soviet bloc countries — Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania in 2004 — have joined the EU, with Ukraine following behind on a slow path to membership through their 2014 Association Agreement.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he believes Ukraine is an extension of Russia, and should remain under its cultural and political influence. “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia,” Putin wrote in a July 2021 essay entitled, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” However, the people of Ukraine have made it abundantly clear they do not feel the same: Verdun points to the 2014 Maidan Revolution, in which a public movement ousted a Russian-leaning president, as a defining moment for the independent nation’s cultural shift away from Russian influence.
Given the scale of the current military conflict — hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian troops are deployed and in battle across the country — it makes sense that some European leaders might not want to escalate their own countries’ roles in the conflict, despite their moral (and in many cases, financial and military) support for Ukraine. “Russia is a very aggressive military actor right now that doesn't seem to respect the rule of law in war,” Verdun says. Aggressive enough, in fact, that it’s made “the rest of the world pause as they don't want the situation to escalate.”
However, she points out that if Russia were to invade one of the former Soviet countries which are already EU members, the alliance’s response would be much different. “At that point in time, it would be an attack on the European Union, and the European Union would be implicated in this war.” Once a country officially becomes a member of the EU, they operate under a mutual defense clause — which, according to Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, means “if an EU country is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other EU countries have an obligation to aid and assist it by all the means in their power.”
Also likely dashing Ukraine’s hopes is the fact it takes several years for a country to go through the process to become eligible. (Hence, why Zelenskyy called for a more rapid admittance.) Because of this, Verdun says, EU membership and Ukraine “cannot be in the same sentence” amid this crisis: “Joining the European Union is a very [complex] legal process,” she says. “It is not something that can be offered overnight.” On average, the entire process to join the EU, from application to membership, takes about a decade due to the sheer number of legal qualifications that must be met. If a country aims to become a member of the alliance, they must meet hundreds of legal, social, economic, and democratic requirements. From application to membership, it took Croatia about a decade to be admitted to the EU.
While the EU may not be extending a fast-track to membership for Ukraine amid this rapidly escalating crisis, the alliance is still providing critical forms of aid. According to the European Commission's site, “€93 million are being made available for humanitarian aid programmes to help civilians affected by the war in Ukraine,” as part of a €550 million package of emergency support that includes money for basic goods and services. This humanitarian aid has been vital in providing Ukrainian people with basic needs, such as food, water, shelter, health care, and more. Meanwhile, as of April 4, the EU has begun investigating Russia for potential war crimes and crimes against humanity amid the invasion. So while the EU may not be able to immediately admit Ukraine as a member, it’s clear the alliance is still providing the nation with much-needed resources while doing its best to avoid conflict with Russia.