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The EU will welcome Ukraine but won't fast-track its membership application

EU leaders pose for a photograph at the Palace of Versailles near Paris on Thursday, ahead of their summit to discuss the fallout of Russia's invasion in Ukraine.
Ludovic Marin
AFP via Getty Images
EU leaders pose for a photograph at the Palace of Versailles near Paris on Thursday, ahead of their summit to discuss the fallout of Russia's invasion in Ukraine.

European Union leaders are backing Ukraine's bid for membership — but through the traditional process that takes years, not the fast-tracked version that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been pushing.

The European Council condemned Russia's military aggression and reiterated its support for Ukraine in a statement issued Thursday, halfway through a two-day summit at France's Palace of Versailles.

In response to Zelenskyy's formal application for membership, which he submitted on Feb. 28, officials said that "Ukraine belongs to our European family" but stopped short of extending an immediate welcome.

"The Council has acted swiftly and invited the Commission to submit its opinion on this application in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Treaties," it wrote. "Pending this and without delay, we will further strengthen our bonds and deepen our partnership to support Ukraine in pursuing its European path."

The statement was published at 3 a.m. local time after hours of debate, Politico notes. It also pledged to protect Ukrainian refugees, help Ukraine rebuild after the war and increase economic pressure on Russia and Belarus, while calling on Russia to withdraw immediately and unconditionally.

Ukraine signed an association agreement — which is considered a precursor to EU accession — with the EU in 2014. Following Russia's invasion last month, Zelenskyy has repeatedly called for the EU to admit Ukraine immediately under a "new special procedure."

EU leaders have expressed support for Ukraine and its bid for membership, while stressing that the official road to admission is a long and involved one.

What member countries are saying

Some EU countries have voiced their support for Ukraine's immediate accession in recent weeks.

The presidents of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia published an open letter on Feb. 28 calling for the EU to admit Ukraine immediately.

"We call on the EU Member States to consolidate highest political support to Ukraine and enable the EU institutions to conduct steps to immediately grant Ukraine a EU candidate country status and open the process of negotiations," they wrote.

Leaders of those countries reiterated their calls at the Versailles summit, Deutsche Welle reports.

There are those "who think that .. Ukrainians are fighting for their lives and (deserve) a strong political message ... and those who are still debating the procedures," said Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa.

Indeed, others — like the Netherlands and Germany — are not on board with the idea of speeding up Ukraine's application process.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has rejected the proposal, saying on Thursday, "It is very important that we continue to pursue the things that we have indeed decided in the past."

And Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said ahead of the summit that there was consensus in Western Europe against fast-tracking the process, according to Politico. He said the EU is treating Ukraine's application with unprecedented speed, but that it would take "months, maybe years, before you get to anything."

"What's important is that Ukraine has asked to be member of the EU (...) there is no fast track procedure to become member of the EU," he told reporters on Thursday.

Details on the long road to membership

A country wishing to join the EU must meet a set of conditions that are known as the "Copenhagen criteria" and include things like respect for democracy and rule of law. Then it can submit an application to the European Council, which in turn asks the European Commission to weigh in on whether it meets those criteria.

If so, the European Council must draw up a framework for negotiations — which can't start until all 27 member states agree. The negotiations cover 35 chapters of EU law, clustered into six groups.

Once they are complete, the commission recommends the candidate country for membership, and the resulting treaty must be approved unanimously in the council, a majority vote in the European Parliament and by national parliaments of each EU member state.

Accession negotiations take an average of five years, according to the think tank UK in a Changing Europe. It says the quickest countries to negotiate the process were Austria, Finland and Sweden in just under two years, while Croatia took nearly eight.

Five candidate countries are currently integrating EU legislation into national law: Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey (which began negotiations in 2005). Two others — Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina — are classified as "potential candidates" because they do not yet fulfill the EU's membership criteria.

This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.