War pushes Ukraine nearer EU, but long road ahead to joining
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Brussels (AFP) – Russia's invasion has seen Ukraine hurtle towards joining the EU, but the path to full membership remains long and complex despite bullishness in Kyiv.
Before Moscow's forces launched their all-out assault last February, few in Brussels or Kyiv saw Ukraine's accession as a pressing issue.
But just four months later, Kyiv had been granted "candidate status" to become a member as the horrors of the conflict pushed EU leaders to start the ball rolling.
Now, as top EU officials head to Kyiv for a summit this week that Prime Minister Denys Shmygal described as "extremely important" for his country's bid to join, Ukraine is urging the bloc to maintain the momentum.
"No games or narrow political interests should stand in the way," Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said.
French President Emmanuel Macron warned last May it could take "decades" before Ukraine meets the criteria and achieves full membership.
That estimate resonated with Turkey and countries in the Balkans which have seen their applications going nowhere fast for years.
But officials in Kyiv insist the dynamics of the war and sacrifices their country is making mean the usual playbook has been torn up.
"We can discuss any date today, but it will be very close once Ukraine wins the war," Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak told AFP.
"It will be symbolic. This will be very important for Europe above all."
Sebastien Maillard, director of the Paris-based Jacques Delors Institute, said that while Kyiv was pushing to join in five years, a timeframe of 10 to 15 years seems "more probable".
A senior EU official cautioned that there was a need to "manage expectations" among Ukrainian counterparts pushing to start the next stage -- formal accession negotiations -- this year.
Brussels set out seven initial steps for Kyiv to fulfil when it was granted candidate status, focused on strengthening the judiciary, fighting corruption and curbing the clout of powerful oligarchs.
"I'm not sure when it will happen, because it's a merit-based process," said the EU official, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity.
"We cannot have Ukraine as it was before the war. We need reforms. We have billions going into the country and that's a key message we need to send."
Even as it is engulfed in an existential fight with Russian forces, Ukraine has managed to make progress on some of the demands.
But a string of high-profile corruption scandals that erupted in January highlighted the challenges it faces -- even if there was a quick reaction in dismissing implicated officials.
The EU's executive arm is set to issue its first full report on Ukraine's progress in the autumn.
Among EU member states, there are widely divergent views on how fast the process can go.
Ukraine's strongest cheerleaders in the east of the bloc -- spearheaded by Poland and the Baltic states -- insist Kyiv is making big strides and progress could come quicker than expected.
"I've seen in the last 11 months so much happening that was impossible before and looked like it could never be achieved," said an EU diplomat.
"But they did happen and that makes me optimistic."
But others insist that while making Ukraine a candidate sent the right symbolic message of support, working through the nitty-gritty of the major reforms needed would be long and arduous.
"We don't want to discourage them but at the same time there needs to be a sense of realism," another EU diplomat said.
Regardless of the complexities of the membership process, almost a year of war has already pushed Ukraine far closer to the EU in major practical ways.
Brussels and member states have committed tens of billions of euros to the country since February, helping to keep its government running and arm its troops.
Millions of Ukrainians displaced by the fighting have set up home in the EU and access to the bloc's treasured market has been eased as import tariffs were suspended.
Officials hope to make progress on concrete steps to bind Ukraine closer, mentioning further possibilities for "progressive integration" in an early draft of the summit declaration.
These range from bolstering access to the EU's internal market to establishing tariff-free mobile phone roaming.
"Something material will have to be given to Ukraine this year by the EU," said Andre Haertel from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
"Currently talk in Brussels includes smaller things such as roaming and bigger things such as heading towards full inclusion into the single market."
He said it was difficult to see accession talks starting this year, "but it will be hard for the EU to push that further than 2024".
© 2023 AFP