The real reason Ukraine won’t be joining the EU any time soon
The European Union wants Ukraine as a member state, but not any time soon. It cannot fast-track Kyiv’s membership for fear of bankrupting itself.
Once Ukraine is a member, the EU is firmly on the hook for hundreds of billions of euros in funding and aid, which will demand a lengthy and torturous overhaul of its rules.
Volodymr Zelensky has demanded full membership in just two years, but there are warnings there can be no shortcuts to joining before an EU-Ukraine summit in Kyiv on Friday.
Emmanuel Macron has already cautioned it could be a decade before Ukraine is ready to join the bloc.
Britons may find this hard to believe, but it is actually harder to join the EU than it is to leave it.
Before joining, candidate countries must submit to a stringent and lengthy process of absorbing EU law and rules covering everything from human rights to central bank regulations.
This can take many years, even if you are not an occupied country at war with constantly shifting borders.
Brussels granted Ukraine candidate status, a first step in the membership process, in record-breaking time.
The EU will praise Ukraine at the summit for the progress on reforms in areas such as corruption that it has already made, despite the war.
But there is no disguising how difficult, time-consuming and costly it will be to ultimately welcome Ukraine into the fold.
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the EU’s monolithic system of agriculture subsidies, is worth €387 billion (£343.8 billion) in the current seven-year budget period. A chunk of that is paid to farmers, with conditions, based on how many acres they farm.
Ukraine was one of the world’s breadbaskets before the war and more than 55 per cent of its land is arable. Once an EU member, its farmers would be entitled to huge payments from the CAP.
The subsidies could be phased in over a number of years or the CAP rules changed. However, the CAP is a totemic policy cherished by farming member states and the last round of negotiations to reform it took three years.
Ukraine will also benefit from EU cohesion funds, which is money designed to raise living standards across the bloc.
If Ukraine joins the EU, which will require the unanimous support of all 27 member states in a vote, it will be the fifth-largest member state, but also its poorest.
It will receive far more EU funding than it pays, which will have ramifications for existing member states.
Portugal and the Czech Republic would become net contributors to the EU budget, meaning they pay in more than they receive, for the first time.
Consequences for EU enlargement policy
It isn’t just about the money.
The EU’s voting system takes into account the size and number of countries voting.
Ukraine, with an estimated population of about 43 million, could tilt the balance of power away from the traditional Franco-German axis and towards central and eastern Europe.
Olaf Scholz wants the EU treaties reformed to prevent eastern countries teaming up to force richer nations to pay more to them before Ukraine joins.
But treaty change is a can of worms that typically takes many years of divisive negotiations.
Turbo-charging Ukraine’s membership process will have other consequences for an EU enlargement policy that was revitalised by the invasion of Ukraine.
Ahead of Kyiv in the queue to join are no fewer than six Western Balkans nations. Georgia and Moldova followed Ukraine in asking for membership.
Any special treatment offered to Ukraine will be demanded by the two new candidates and irk those, like Albania, who have been kept waiting for years to get in the EU.
The EU has already committed huge sums in aid, weapons and promised reconstruction funds to Ukraine.
But its officials are aware of the risks of raising Ukrainian expectations of membership any time soon.
There are plenty more obstacles to navigate before Ukraine can join the EU, but the biggest is Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
As long as he can wage his illegal war, Ukraine will be kept waiting to complete its defiant turn westwards.