What Europe Thinks ... About Ukraine
The Russian invasion of Ukraine caused a surge in support for the country’s EU membership. However there already signs that support may be cooling. And doubts persist about whether Ukraine can fulfil the many accession criteria.
In a 2015 episode of the Ukrainian comedy series Servant of the People, actor Volodymyr Zelensky, playing the president of Ukraine, gets a call from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She tells him that his country has been awarded membership to the European Union. He rejoices, thanks her, and says that Ukraine has been waiting for this for a long time. “Ukrainians?” she says, “Sorry, that was a mistake. I was calling Montenegro.”
The skit may have a different ending in real life. On June 17, the European Commission recommended that Ukraine be granted candidate status, a first step to joining the 27-member bloc. Leaders of the 27 EU members followed suit a week later, also extending a hand to Moldova. However, the process of joining the EU will take years, if not decades—if it happens at all.
The decision was reflective of broad popular support in Europe for membership. According to the April 2022 Eurobarometer survey, 66 percent of Europeans think that Ukraine should join the EU “when it is ready.” 71 percent of Europeans believed that Ukraine was part of the "European family."
There is wide variation within the 27-member bloc when it came to support for Ukraine joining. 58 percent of Lithuanians “fully” support Ukraine's membership, while just 15 percent of Hungarians do. Majorities in Luxembourg, Greece, Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Slovakia also did not support Ukraine's membership bid. Across the survey, support tended to be highest in Poland, Sweden, and the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia), and lowest in Hungary and Bulgaria.
The invasion caused a surge in support for Ukraine. A 2020 poll by the Ukrainian think tank New Europe Center surveying France, Germany, Poland, and Italy found that 55 percent of respondents supported EU membership—about 10 points lower than 2022. Among Ukrainians, support for EU membership has skyrocketed since the Russian invasion, which was launched on February 24. While around 60 percent of Ukrainians in the past few years have wanted to join, the number rose to 91 percent in late March.
A Divided Europe
While support rose initially, there are indications that it may be cooling. A poll conducted between late April and May by the European Council on Foreign Relations indicated a split between those who wanted Ukraine to make peace with Russia, even if it meant territorial concessions, and those who wanted Ukrainians to continue the fight to punish Russia for its aggression. In all 10 European countries surveyed by the ECFR, with the exception of Poland, those wanting “peace” outnumbered those wanting “justice” for Russia’s aggression. The two biggest concerns among Europeans were increases in the cost of living—including high energy prices—and fears that Russia would use nuclear weapons. EU membership, however, was supported by both camps, but less so by those wanting Ukraine to make peace quickly.
Despite signs that public opinion may be cooling toward Ukraine, Brussels has given Ukraine big shows of public support. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has visited President Zelensky in Kyiv twice since Russia invaded in February. On June 17, she wore the blue and yellow colors of Ukraine's flag when making the candidacy announcement. “Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective,” she tweeted. “We want them to live with us [in] the European dream.”
Ukrainian and European officials have emphasized that granting Ukraine's candidacy is a strong signal of European unity amid Russia's invasion. Writing in IPQ before the decision was taken, President of the German Bundestag Bärbel Bas and Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) Ruslan Stefanchuk argued that candidacy was the “best answer to Russia’s violent expansionism" and "would send an unequivocal signal to Putin that his strategy has failed.”
A Big Carrot, Few Sticks
Becoming a candidate does not necessarily mean that Ukraine will become a member. Many countries have applied and have not been admitted: Turkey applied in 1987, North Macedonia in 2004, Montenegro in 2008, Albania and Serbia in 2009, and Bosnia Herzegovina in 2016. On June 17, the European Commission recommended candidate status to Moldova as well, but not for Georgia. In addition, the EU has not been adding new members recently: the last enlargement took place in 2013 with Croatia. The bloc is still integrating its poorer members, like Romania and Bulgaria, and trying to address democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland.
The speed at which Ukraine accedes to the EU presents trade-offs. On one hand, Putin's invasion has brought an unprecedented sense of urgency to membership, which is shared by the Baltic states and Poland. However, the bloc has more leverage to push reforms before countries are admitted—it can hold the carrot of membership out, while it has little in the way of sticks. Therefore, a swift accession process for Ukraine may cause consternation among some member states—particularly those in Western Europe—who would like to see Ukraine prove that it has made progress on governance reforms before it becomes a member.
Ukraine faces severe economic and political challenges to joining. It would be the EU’s fifth-largest member by population. It would be, by far, the poorest country in the bloc. According to 2021 data from the International Monetary Fund, the poorest current member state is Bulgaria, with a GDP per capita of about $11,680, while Ukraine's was at $4,830 in 2021—that is, before the Russian invasion destroyed Ukraine’s economy. Ukraine also has deep-seated corruption problems—in 2021, it ranked 122 out of 180 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, far lower than any EU member state.
Widespread popular support across Europe may give Ukraine’s candidacy the momentum that other EU hopefuls lack. Ukrainian officials remain rightfully worried about how long that support will last due to the war's inflationary shock and fears that Russia will use nuclear weapons. How long that support lasts will largely depend on how much European leaders use that opinion to back Ukraine’s candidacy.
Luke Johnson is IPQ's social media editor and a freelance reporter living in Berlin, frequently writing about Eastern Europe.