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Ukraine could become a candidate to join the EU. Here's what it takes to get in

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

European Union leaders will meet tomorrow in Brussels, where they are expected to approve Ukraine as a candidate to join the EU. This is a process that is neither quick nor easy. NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz is here to talk us through the process. Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right, so not like this is an up-or-down vote, welcome-to-the-club, come-on-in-type situation. What is involved for Ukraine to join the EU?

SCHMITZ: Well, the European Union is an exclusive club where, in order to join it, you have to meet an extremely long list of criteria to ensure that your government and economy fit the overarching principles of the bloc. And it often requires an overhaul of a candidate country's political system, as well as its financial sector, that is overseen and then tested by EU officials over a long period of time. There are several other countries in line to become EU members, like Turkey, Serbia, Montenegro, and all of them face challenges. I spoke to Barbara Lippert about this. She's the research director for the German Institute for Politics and Security. Here's what she said about the EU's process.

BARBARA LIPPERT: It rules large parts of not only business, but also normal lives of the citizens. And so this is really a huge task ahead of Ukraine and will take at least 10 years or so to meet all these criteria.

KELLY: Hang on, Rob - 10 years or so?

SCHMITZ: Yeah.

KELLY: Wow.

SCHMITZ: (Laughter).

KELLY: Why?

SCHMITZ: The European Union does everything slowly and meticulously, sometimes painfully so, especially when it comes to deciding who gets to join. The bloc wants to ensure that Ukraine's government is a healthy democracy. At the heart of that is an independent judicial system free from influence from whatever political party is in charge. And this is a problem with full-fledged members, like Poland and Hungary, and it's also a problem in Ukraine. On the economic side, the EU requires a level playing field inside the internal markets of its members, and Ukraine has a history of oligarchs dominating the market, receiving government contracts and pushing out competitors. So that's another big problem that Kyiv will need to solve in order to become an EU member, and doing all of this takes a long time.

KELLY: Worth noting, Ukraine has had a lot going on - they're in the middle of a war.

SCHMITZ: That's right. And because we don't know how this war will end and what Ukraine will look like when the time comes to join the EU, you know, this is going to be complicated. It's the first time ever that the EU is granting candidate status and opening negotiations with a country that is at war with its neighbors, so this is very difficult to see where it's going.

KELLY: Well, and it raises the question of how meaningful it is if the EU does vote and say, yes, you can become a candidate. Is this just optics, or what's the hope for what this will accomplish?

SCHMITZ: Well, first, it injects a bit of hope to Ukraine at a time when Kyiv really needs it. I mean, we're approaching the fourth month of a war where Ukraine is slowly losing parts of its territory to advancing troops from Russia. Secondly, it gives a boost to political reformers inside of Ukraine who've been eager to reform the country's government to root out corruption and to make Ukraine a healthier democracy. It's important to point out here that Ukraine was not a fully developed democracy with transparent markets under a fair judicial system. This is a country that has been dealing with all sorts of challenges to a system built on a Western model of governance, and this candidate status for the EU shows that it's ready and willing to make the changes necessary to be a part of that model.

KELLY: NPR's Rob Schmitz, thanks for your reporting.

SCHMITZ: Thanks a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.