It was an impassioned plea: As war raged in his country, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine asked in early March that his country be allowed to join the European Union, the world’s biggest trading bloc, which had helped preserve peace in Europe for decades.
“We have proven that at a minimum we are exactly the same as you,” he told the European Parliament. “So do prove that you are with us, do prove that you will not let us go, do prove that you indeed are Europeans.”
On Friday, his plea received a positive endorsement when the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, recommended that Ukraine be granted candidate status in the country’s bid to become a member of the bloc.
However, Mr. Zelensky’s E.U. aspirations aren’t likely to be satisfied anytime soon: Joining the bloc is a painstaking and arduous process that can take as long as a decade. Poland, for example, made a formal request to join the bloc in 1994 and was not admitted until 2004.
For a country to join, its candidacy must be approved by all E.U. member states, which now number 27. It must also make its political system, judiciary and economy compatible with the bloc by adopting the E.U. system of common law, as well as more than 80,000 pages of rules and regulations on things like environmental standards and food hygiene rules.
And while there are precedents for fast-tracking bids — Sweden and Finland managed to join the Union in a few years after applying — a speedy approach is rare. Moreover, other countries have been waiting for years to join, including Albania, Bosnia and Serbia, making it difficult for the European Union to move faster on Ukraine.
Beyond that, the bloc also has a measure of expansion fatigue after being shaken by economic crises, Brexit and the pandemic, as well as the actions of rule-breaking member countries like Hungary.
Ukraine has already been on a path to mooring itself closer to Europe and has had an association agreement with the European Union, signed in 2014 and concluded in 2017, in which it agreed to intensify economic and political ties with the bloc.
Ukrainians have been ardent in wanting to forge closer links with Europe, and in 2013 hundreds of thousands of them took to the streets to protest when the president at the time, Viktor F. Yanukovych, who leaned toward Russia, backtracked on signing an association agreement with the union.
Whatever the challenges for Ukraine’s E.U. hopes, Russia’s war has engendered an outpouring of solidarity in the bloc, drawing some of the toughest sanctions in its history. Eastern and Central European countries like Poland and the Baltic nations, which lived for decades behind the Iron Curtain and where memories of Russian subjugation run deep, have been among the most enthusiastic in backing Ukraine’s membership.
Most Europeans welcomed the union’s eastward expansion in May 2004, when it admitted 10 mostly former Communist countries — including the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland — because, among other things, it cemented the demise of the Soviet bloc and helped spread economic and political liberalism across the continent.
The European Union’s ability to offer membership to countries has been one of its greatest foreign policy tools in the post-Cold War world. The prospect of joining forced Bulgaria and Romania to try to tackle corruption and accelerated the arrest of war criminals in Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro.
Even though Ukraine’s E.U. membership process is likely to be gradual and face significant challenges, the country’s attempt to forge closer ties with NATO and the European Union underlines how President Vladimir V. Putin’s attempt to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit by force appears to be having the opposite effect.