European Union Grants Candidate Status to Ukraine: Is It That Big of a Deal?

The move comes four months after President Zelenskyy placed his country's bid to join the EU.

3 min read

The European Union granted Ukraine candidate status on Thursday, 23 June, with the country's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy terming it "a unique and historic moment" between Ukraine and the economic bloc.

For Ukraine, it opens the door to EU membership.

The move comes four months after Zelenskyy placed his country's bid to join the EU, just a few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February.

"Today is a good day for Europe," Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, tweeted.

Additionally, Moldova was also given candidate status in the EU.


But Does It Really Matter?

In her tweet about the European Union granting candidate status to Ukraine, Ursula von der Leyen added that "it strengthens the EU. Because it shows once again to the world that we are united and strong in the face of external threats."

Even the mayor of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, jubilantly wrote on Telegram, "We paid a very high price for this chance."

But how much does it really matter? Let's look at it militarily and then economically.

The EU, by its own definition, is a political and economic union. It is even more important to clearly state what it is not.

Unlike the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the EU is not a military alliance.

This means that even if Ukraine becomes an EU member soon (it could take up to years), it will not have the privilege of being protected by something like Article 5 of the NATO charter, which treats an attack on one NATO member as an attack on all members of the inter-governmental alliance.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, the latter has been begging for military aid, and the EU has, in a historic move, responded by agreeing to give it €2 billion in aid, mostly for weapons.

Calls for a "further increase of military support for Ukraine" were made on Friday.

The real question is how quickly the EU can live up to its promises. It must also be noted that Ukraine becoming an EU member will not really change the scale and pace of the military aid that is already being provided.

So, what about economic aid, considering the EU is an economic union?

The EU has already sent billions in aid to Ukraine and the European Commission is working on a €9 billion emergency funding package for the war-torn country.

With respect to the sanctions against Russia, the EU's last package included an oil embargo on 90 percent of the imports.

Therefore, the economic benefits that a country gets from joining the EU is something that Ukraine has enjoyed since the early days of the war.

Even Symbolism Is Important

The larger point of the EU granting candidate status to Ukraine concerns unity. It sends a simple message to Russia – that Europe is firmly behind Ukraine.

After all, the candidacy offer from the EU comes just a few days after the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, and Romania visited Kyiv on 16 June, in a show of collective support for Ukraine.

Even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited the Ukrainian capital on 17 June – his second trip since the war began.

Given that Europe is heavily reliant on Russia for energy, awarding candidate status to Ukraine is a politically strong move, despite having minimal relevance to the military and economic aspects of the war.


Will Russia Rage Over This?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly insisted that he has "nothing against" Ukraine joining the EU. His demands, in this respect, were limited to NATO, given the military nature of the latter alliance.

He even went on to say, "It's their sovereign decision to join economic unions or not." The key phrase here is "economic unions."

The Kremlin, however, has stated that it will give "increased attention" to not just the Ukrainian candidacy but also the EU's consideration of getting a defence force of its own.

"The military, defence and security components are being discussed. We are, of course, observing it all thoroughly," the Kremlin stated after the EU's announcement regarding Ukraine on 23 June.

Either way, the formal incorporation of Ukraine into the EU can take years. For the most recent joiners, that is, Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia, it took between 10 and 12 years for them to formally become EU members.

Whatever may happen from the Russian side as a consequence of Ukraine joining the EU, it is unlikely that it is going to happen anytime soon.

(With inputs from Reuters, The Guardian, and the BBC.)

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