Tony Connelly: When will Ukraine join the EU – and how is Ireland helping the cause?

EuropeIreland's 50 years in the EU

Ireland is one of only two western member states to join ‘EUkraine’, a group of 12 countries pushing for a positive response to President Zelenskiy’s request

Ireland joined the EEC, as it then was, in January 1973. This is one of a series of articles exploring our evolving relationship with the European Union – and its past, present and future

Nothing has jolted the European Union’s moribund enlargement process into life as much as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Confronted with the existential struggle of values that the war has become, EU decision-makers slowly but then boldly agreed that Ukraine should ultimately become an EU member state.

After Russia did the unthinkable and sent tanks into a neighbouring country, the response of European electorates has been instrumental.

“They inspired their governments to adopt change on a historic scale,” wrote Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in June. “They opened their homes to millions of Ukrainians; they demanded tough economic sanctions; and they forced western companies to leave Russia as quickly as possible. While previous ‘European moments’ were marked by the European flag mobilising people beyond the borders of the European Union (including in Ukraine), this time the Ukrainian flag mobilised people within the EU.”


Yet over time that mobilisation will face mounting realities. It is not just that Ukraine, even before the war, had a GDP less than a third the EU average, and that Europe will inherit a country devastated by Russian bombs; the EU now believes the entire eastern neighbourhood must be brought into the fold as a bulwark against Russia’s brazen imperial surge.

Moldova and Georgia have been given a more tangible perspective on accession, while the EU is having to reassure the western Balkans – Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bosnia and Albania – languishing in the waiting room, that they won’t be leapfrogged just because of the war.

Undoubtedly the horrors unfolding have cast Ukraine’s application in a unique light. That Ukrainians were literally dying in order to be part of the European family became a truism that was hard to ignore when diplomats pondered the fast-tracking of Ukraine’s candidacy.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy formally applied just five days after Russia invaded. Seven days after that member states asked the European Commission to give its opinion.

Two burning questions remain: can Ukraine absorb all the demands of EU membership, and can the EU absorb a poverty-stricken, war-torn country of 43 million people?

Yet the doors were not flung open. Many capitals believed it was too soon. At an emergency summit in Versailles in early March, EU leaders discussed the application but their declaration was silent on candidacy, except to say that they would “further strengthen our bonds and deepen our partnership to support Ukraine in pursuing its European path. Ukraine belongs to our European family”.

In May, President Emmanuel Macron told the European Parliament that accession would take “decades”. Ukraine, he said, could join an as yet undefined European Political Community, a remark that went down very badly in Kyiv and eastern Europe.

Yet the process continued. In early April, the commission sent a series of questionnaires on the political and economic criteria of membership and Kyiv had its responses ready within weeks, if not days.


Ireland – somewhat surprisingly – was one of only two western member states to join EUkraine, a group of 12 mostly eastern and central European countries pushing for a positive response. A joint letter published on March 22nd declared: “In their fight for freedom and democracy the Ukrainians are demonstrating that they are true Europeans in spirit and in deed.”

Dublin believed Ukraine merited fast-tracking to candidate status, and not just because of the war. An internal Government briefing note stated there was “a clear distinction between the response to the current situation in Ukraine and applications from Moldova and Georgia. Ukraine, in particular, has made impressive progress in aligning with EU standards and deserves recognition for their efforts to defend European values.”

Those efforts were being forged through the hell of a genocidal war, but the arc of Ukraine’s European ambitions went back to independence in 1991.

Three years after the country broke from the Soviet Union, Kyiv signed a Partnership and Co-operation Agreement with the EU. In 2004, Ukraine became a priority partner within the EU’s fledgling Neighbourhood Policy and its orientation was strengthened further by the launch of the EU’s Eastern Partnership Initiative.

When the pro-Moscow presidential candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, rigged the 2004 elections, the subsequent mass demonstrations known as the Orange Revolution had a strong pro-European tinge. In 2007, the EU began negotiations on a deeper trade and political relationship. A draft Association Agreement was initialled by both parties in March 2012.

I cannot comprehend how we could ever refuse accession to other members because we know that membership itself can be transformative

—  Micheál Martin

It was when Yanukovych, who had returned to power in 2010, refused (under pressure from Vladimir Putin) to sign the full agreement in 2013 that mass protests erupted, leading to the bloody Maidan revolt (known in Ukraine as the Revolution of Dignity) in which 100 protesters were shot dead, some by shadowy pro-Kremlin militia.

Putin was determined to keep Ukraine in Moscow’s embrace. Russia invaded Crimea and fomented a bitter proxy war in eastern Ukraine. Despite that, Kyiv stuck with the EU Association Agreement. The EU formally recognised Ukraine’s “European aspirations” in 2015, and in 2017 the Association Agreement entered fully into force. By 2019, Ukraine’s parliament had adopted a constitutional amendment defining the state’s strategic course as “full membership of Ukraine in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation”.

Ukraine is already a contracting party to a range of pacts with the EU from energy to aviation to climate goals to cybersecurity to the Horizon Europe research programme. Ukrainians have enjoyed visa-free travel to the Schengen Area since June 2017.

However, two burning questions remain: can Ukraine absorb all the demands of membership, and can the EU absorb a poverty-stricken, war-torn country of 43 million people?

Ukraine has already aligned much of its economy and public administration with EU norms thanks to the Association Agreement. The commission’s opinion, on which EU leaders granted candidate status at a key summit on June 17th, was that Ukraine had “given ample proof of its adherence to the values on which the European Union is founded . . . [and] demonstrated the resilience of its institutions guaranteeing democracy, rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities”.

But there is a long way to go.

Ukraine would have to make substantial changes to its judicial system and deepen the fight against corruption, the extent of which was soberly captured in a report by the European Court of Auditors in September 2021.

The report identified the problem of “grand corruption”, taken to mean “the abuse of high-level power that benefits the few, and causes serious and widespread harm to individuals and society”.

Ukraine’s cause could change from being a unifying national endeavour and turn into a divisive political issue

—  Authors Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev

It stated: “Petty corruption is widespread, and is accepted as almost inevitable by a large part of the population. Citizens ‘often justify their participation in such petty corruption by noting that high-level officials and oligarchs are involved in graft on a much grander scale’ [citing a United States Agency for International Development report]. Experts have estimated that huge amounts – in the tens of billions of dollars – are lost annually as a result of corruption in Ukraine.”

For that, and other reasons, when Ukraine’s candidate status was accepted by EU leaders at the summit in June, the sense of history was tempered by genuine concerns about what the EU was taking on.

Thorny challenge

Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, in particular warned that countries didn’t join the EU for geopolitical reasons only: well-defined criteria had to be observed. What’s more, he said, if enlargement now meant Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia joining, and the six western Balkan countries, the EU’s ability to make decisions would be at the absolute limit.

Leaders concluded that the pace of EU enlargement depended not only on the progress of the candidates, but also on “the EU’s capacity to absorb new members”.

If Ukraine – and the others – were to join then the EU would need treaty change, a thorny challenge to which many member states (especially Ireland) are allergic.

Nonetheless, the EU has started to accelerate western Balkan accession. In July, negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia began after years of delay, and European affairs ministers have recently recommended that Bosnia be given candidate status.

Because of rampant problems within the western Balkans, the challenge is huge. “None is close to joining the EU,” says Luigi Scazzieri, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform. “They must all overcome substantial hurdles to meet the Copenhagen criteria, which define the EU’s standards on strong democratic institutions, a functioning market economy and the ability to take on the obligations of membership.”

As for Ukraine’s eventual membership, a survey of 8,000 voters by the ECFR in June found that those who want “justice” for the country, ie for Ukraine to win, are far more likely to believe in accession, while those who want “peace”, ie negotiations with Russia, are less keen.

This does not bode well. “In many European countries,” wrote the authors Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev, “Ukraine’s cause could change from being a unifying national endeavour and turn into a divisive political issue”.

Yet Ukraine’s valiant defence of its values and territory, and its tenacious counter-offensives, continue to shape European public and political opinion. Given Russia’s war aims (at best, to keep conquered territory, at worst to eradicate Ukraine completely) the EU will have to accept that Kyiv’s European dreams may be contingent on a brutal military outcome.

Since the very first day, the Ukrainian army has shown to the world – and given evidence on a daily basis – that we are heroic, we are resilient, and we’re determined to win.

—  Yuriy Sak, senior adviser to the Ukrainian minister for defence

The stakes, as historian Timothy Snyder recently noted in Foreign Affairs magazine, could not be higher.

“A Ukrainian victory,” he wrote, “would confirm the principle of self-rule, allow the integration of Europe to proceed, and empower people of goodwill to return reinvigorated to other global challenges. A Russian victory, by contrast, would extend genocidal policies in Ukraine, subordinate Europeans, and render any vision of a geopolitical European Union obsolete.”

And yet the geopolitics of EU enlargement had been frozen (Croatia was the last to join in 2013), as governments fretted over large-scale migration and the increasingly unwieldy nature of decision-making.

It was at that summit on June 17th, when leaders accepted that Ukraine could formally start its journey to EU membership, that then taoiseach Micheál Martin made an explicit link with Ireland’s own accession. Despite the differences (cities were currently being levelled in Ukraine), Ireland could not ignore its own experience.

“It’s the 50th anniversary of Ireland’s decision to join the European Union, probably the single most transformative decision and event that happened in modern Irish history,” Martin told reporters as he arrived in Brussels. “So, I cannot comprehend how we could ever refuse accession to other members because we know that membership itself can be transformative.”

While reporting for RTÉ in Kyiv in November, the overwhelming sense was of a population digging for unfathomed resilience in the face of a Russian onslaught on electricity and heat infrastructure, as well as on residential buildings, while the military was engaged in a blood and thunder battle along a 2,500km front in the east.

Kyivans have, perhaps, more on their plates than worrying about the Copenhagen criteria and meeting standards of judicial independence. Ultimately, they feel their struggle does not just earn them a place at the table of western European democracy, but that they are laying down their lives to defend it.

First and foremost, though, the war is about preserving Ukraine’s culture and hard-fought nationhood. I spoke to Yuriy Sak, a senior adviser to the minister for defence. “Since the very first day, the Ukrainian army has shown to the world – and given evidence on a daily basis – that we are heroic, we are resilient, and we’re determined to win. We are driven by our understanding that this is a war of our survival.”

Tony Connelly is RTÉ’s Europe Editor