Ukraine scored an unexpected political victory Thursday as European Union leaders voted to open membership talks with the country.
The accession negotiations will likely take years, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy applauded the decision as welcome news at a time when his country is struggling to fend off Russia’s military invasion.
“This is a victory for Ukraine,” he said. “A victory for all of Europe.”
The move was a surprise amid vocal opposition from Hungary. It and signals a major shift in European leaders’ acceptance of Ukraine.
However, a proposed 50 billion euro ($73.6B Cdn) aid package for Ukraine, aimed to help the country stay afloat as it continues to suffer damages in the war, was vetoed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban later on Thursday.
Here is what accession talks could mean for Ukraine and the EU.
Why is this a surprise?
Ukraine has been eyeing EU membership for years, but the negotiations were expected to be stymied by Hungary, with Orban saying for weeks that he would block the deal at Thursday’s summit in Brussels.
In a surprising twist, Orban agreed to leave the room for the vote, which he still criticized afterward. The other 26 EU members voted in Ukraine’s favour.
Orban’s decision to let the vote pass came the day after the European Commission – the EU’s executive body – released 10.2 billion euros ($15B Cdn) to Hungary that it had frozen, pending the country’s fulfillment of conditions on the independence of its judiciary.
“The big surprise was that the European Union managed to convince Hungary to stand down, because that was the biggest obstacle. Nobody was actually reckoning that this would go through,” said Florian Gassner, an associate professor of teaching with the University of British Columbia’s Department of Central, Eastern and Northern European Studies.
Why is Ukraine’s inclusion controversial?
Hungary has argued Ukraine is too corrupt and does not have the civil society in place that is expected from an EU country, an opinion that was once more widely held among the EU establishment.
Hungary is also the EU’s closest ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin has been riled by Ukraine’s attempts to move away from Russian influence and towards Europe. He responded violently to the country’s 2014 vote to topple its pro-Kremlin government, before starting the current war in February 2022.
Ukraine’s inclusion would also raise economic issues. An internal EU study in July showed if Ukraine became a member immediately, it would be eligible to receive 186.3 billion euros ($274.4B Cdn) under the EU’s system that aims to equalize living standards across its member nations.
This would mean some countries that are currently net recipients of EU funds would become net contributors, and existing contributors would have to pay more.
What changed the European Union’s views on Ukraine?
Ukraine and Moldova both applied to join the EU in February 2022 after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and both obtained candidate status last June.
On Thursday, EU leaders agreed to accession talks with Moldova, and voted to grant another former Soviet republic, Georgia, membership candidate status.
Gassner, who lived in Donetsk, Ukraine in 2012-13, said the war has galvanized support for Ukraine’s accession, especially among countries that would have never considered it before.
He said this is vindication of what the Baltic states and other central European countries have been trying to tell the EU’s foundational members, “that Ukraine is not a radical free agent or potential hostile element of the European Union, but they are through and through European” and Russia is the real threat. “Western European nations have finally appreciated and understood that message,” he said.
Why does Ukraine want to join the EU?
The country could reap significant benefits from its membership, if and when it is approved.
Gassner said Ukraine has a “highly educated, highly motivated, entrepreneurial young society” that is hungry for the prosperity that could come with EU market access. He said Poland’s economy skyrocketed after joining the EU in 2004, and suspects Ukraine would see a similar trajectory.
But Poland’s success also created problems for the EU, with an influx of Polish workers to Britain being one of the factors that led to Brexit. Opening the EU’s labour market to millions of lower paid Ukrainian workers could create similar issues.
The other benefit for Ukraine is security, with the international community being more likely to fully support an EU member country militarily. The vote comes at a time when U.S. support for Ukraine is dwindling and European countries, notably Germany and Denmark, are ramping up their financial backing of the country’s war efforts.
Moldova has similarly courted the EU since electing a pro-Western government in 2020.
What happens next?
The EU will have to unanimously agree to a negotiating framework for the talks at another meeting before proceeding.
Leaders said they will move on this once Ukraine meets outstanding requirements on democracy and the rule of law. They did not provide a timeline.