Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on February 28, 2022 made an earnest plea for his war-stricken country to be made part of the European Union immediately. Hours later, he signed an application for Ukraine's membership in the European Union.

"The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky has just signed a historical document-Ukraine's application for European Union membership," tweeted Andrii Sybiha, Deputy Head of the Ukranian President's Office, adding that the country's Prime Minister Denys Shmygal and Head of the Parliament Ruslan Stephanchuk also signed a joint statement.

"We have proven that at a minimum we are exactly the same as you," Zelensky told the European Parliament on March 1, 2022. "So do prove that you are with us, do prove that you will not let us go, do prove that you indeed are Europeans."

Currently, the EU has 27 member countries and becoming a member of the EU is a laborious process, said Dr Gulshan Sachdeva, professor of European Studies and Chairperson, Centre for European Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.

For instance, it took Poland 10 years to become part of the EU. Also, Turkey, which applied to what was then called the European Economic Community in 1987, was declared eligible only after 12 years. But its membership status is still on hold for more than two decades due to not meeting protocol requirements, according to the European Commission.

"There are political and technical aspects to joining the EU. Firstly, a country needs to become a candidate before getting membership," Sachdeva told FactChecker. The union will ensure that new member countries are admitted only after complying with all of the EU's standards and rules, having the consent of the EU institutions and EU member states and the consent of their citizens which is approved in their national parliaments or by referendum. The current candidate countries are Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey.

How Does it Work

The first step is for the country to meet the key criteria for accession. These were defined at the European Council in Copenhagen in 1993 also known as the 'Copenhagen criteria'. As per the criteria, countries applying need to have:

1. Stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities

2. A functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and market forces in the EU. Further, the country will also need to accept the euro.

3. The ability to take on and implement effectively the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.

Once the country is accepted as a candidate, the European Council must unanimously agree on formal membership negotiations, which then take place between ministers and ambassadors of EU governments and the candidate country. This is called an inter-governmental conference.

The quickest to negotiate accession were Austria, Finland and Sweden. Their negotiations took under two years. In fact, it took Sweden, which applied for membership on July 1, 1991, three-and-a-half years and Finland, which applied on March 18, 1992, less than three years to join the union. They joined the EU on January 1, 1995.

In the next step, the accession treaty is signed only if the candidate country wins the support of the EU Council, the Commission, and the European Parliament. Then, the treaty has to be signed and ratified by the candidate country and representatives of all existing EU countries. Finally, the candidate country moves on to become an acceding country. This means it is expected to become a full EU member on the date laid down in the treaty, providing the treaty has been ratified.

During this period, the country benefits from special arrangements, such as being able to comment on draft EU proposals, communications, recommendations or initiatives, etc. In this time, while the country is allowed to speak, it is not allowed to vote.

EU Membership: How Soon for Ukraine

When asked if exceptions could be made during the time of war, Sachdeva said, "The European Union is a very process or rule-based organization and there are no exceptions generally."

In a landmark move, the EU has decided to finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to Ukraine. "We will use our budget to purchase and deliver weapons to a country under attack - €500 million to support Ukrainian defense," tweeted Ursula von der Leyen, President, EU Commission.

Sachdeva said that since the EU has made this unprecedented move, there are chances that Ukraine's application will be looked favourably. "In normal circumstances this would have been a very bureaucratic and technical process. Since this is an extraordinary situation, they may agree to at least accept it as a candidate country," explained Sachdeva.

Ukraine has an Association Agreement with the EU, signed in 2014. The agreement focuses on political association and economic integration between the two. The agreement commits Ukraine to close co-operation with the EU in the areas of human rights, security and arms control.

Until now, the EU's response to accepting Ukraine as a permanent member has been symbolic. On February 26, 2022, Zelenskyy tweeted saying, "It is a crucial moment to close the long-standing discussion once and for all and decide on Ukraine's membership in the EU." In response to this, President of European Council Charles Michel tweeted, "Ukraine and its people are family. Further concrete support is on its way."

When asked about the benefits of joining the EU, the JNU professor said the country gets immediate access to a huge market. "The moment you become a member of the EU, you become part of a bloc where goods, services, capital and labour move freely. All citizens can travel and even work freely in the 27 EU countries," explained Sachdeva. Furthermore, the country becomes part of all European institutions and becomes part of all decision-making processes. This is important for economic, political and strategic reasons, he concluded.