Will Russia Ever Join the European Union? We Take a Look

The European Union is a political and economic block uniting 27 European countries. Russia is not a member of the EU. In fact, the current relationship between the EU and Russia is at an all-time low. But could this change? As a country at least partly in Europe, could Russia ever join the EU?

It is possible Russia could one day join the European Union, but it is unlikely to happen soon. Barriers to Russia becoming an EU member include Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime, widespread Euroscepticism and Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

If these factors could be addressed, then it is possible that eventually Russia would become an EU member state. However, with the relationship between Russia and the West being described as a second Cold War, we shouldn’t expect Russia to be joining the EU any time soon.

Why Russia Will Probably Join the European Union One Day

At this time, both the political establishment and the general population in Russia do not appear to want EU membership. However, this could change. Let’s start by taking a quick look at what factors could result in Russia joining the EU:

  • Russia is a European country
  • Size of the Russian economy
  • Mutual security
  • Russia’s history

Now, let’s look at each of these…

Russia is a European Country

Russia is a major European country, at least geographical. It has border with the European Union and has similar Christian cultural roots. Although current political divisions have put distance between Russia and the EU, this animosity is unlikely to last forever. If the relationship improved, Russia could likely be a candidate for EU membership.

Size of the Russian Economy

One reason why Russia will probably join the EU one day is that it is a major economic power. Russia is the 11th largest economy in the world. It also has a huge population of 144 million people, making it the 9th largest country globally by number of people. Bringing Russia into the European Union would massively increase the EU’s economic and pollical power. It is likely to want to take advantage of this one day.

Mutual Security

Although Russia and the EU currently have a poor relationship, this is mainly due to security threats each side feel they face from the other. If Russia was incorporated into the EU, and possibly into NATO, this would combine the economies and link the security of both sides. EU membership may be one way to resolve the current tensions between Russia and the West and provide security guarantees to both Russia and the European Union.

Russia’s History

Finally, if we look at a historical perspective, Russia has in the past been seen as major European nation. During the 19th Century, Russia was fully integrated into the European economy. Although there were conflicts and tensions between Russia and other European countries, there were not questions as to whether Russia was a fully European nation. It is likely that history will trend back towards this and if the political situation changes, Russia could once again be considered a European country. If it were, EU membership is likely to follow.

Why Russia May Never Be An EU Member

So, we’ve looked at the factors that could lead to Russia joining the European Union, now let’s take a look at the reasons why Russia may actually never become an EU member state. Some of the main reasons are:

  • Tensions between Russia and the West
  • Lack of EU expansion
  • EU states veto Russian membership

Let’s go over at each of these…

Tensions Between Russia and the West

Firstly, as we briefly discussed, there are currently significant tensions between Russia and the West. Some claim the relationship is as bad as during the Cold War. Although it is likely that the relationship will improve eventually, it is possible that it will never improve to the level where the EU would welcome Russia as a member or that Russian’s feel they want to join the European Union.

Lack of EU Expansion

Secondly, a reason why Russia may never join the EU is if the European Union does not expand. The EU currently has 27 member states. However, after bringing 13 more countries in as members, mainly in eastern Europe, between 2004 and 2013, views in the EU have now turned against further expansion for the time being. As a result, EU expansion into the Balkans has been postponed. If attitudes in Europe continue to be against accepting new members into the EU, then Russia could never get the chance to be an EU member state.

EU States Veto Russian Membership

A third reason why there is a real possibility Russia might not become a member of European Union is each member state of the EU holds veto on the ascension of new members. In 2019, France vetoed starting negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. It is likely that if Russia was considered a candidate to join, one or more current members would veto opening negotiations or the countries final admittance to the EU.

What Would Russia Need To Do To Join The EU?

Any country wishing to join the European Union needs to meet a series of requirements. These are known as the Copenhagen criteria.

For Russia were to join the EU, it would need to meet all the requirements of entry. This includes demonstrating it is a free and open democracy, has adherence to the rule of law and is a free-market economy.

New countries joining the European Union must adopt the Euro as their currency. They also need to accept oversight of EU institutions and incorporate EU laws into their domestic legislation. However, currently Russia does not meet the requirements to become an EU member state.

Russia is not considered by many countries to be a free and fair democracy. Vladimir Putin’s regime has been accused of engineering the election process, constraining civil society, attacking opposition leaders and putting limits on the freedom of the press. Russia would need to make significant progress towards becoming a genuine democracy if it was to be considered for EU membership.

Many observers state that the rule of law in Russia is weak. The government, police and judiciary are accused of bending or breaking laws in order to protect themselves or their allies. The legal system in Russia is seen as lacking transparency and independence. Critics also state the Putin’s regime uses the legal system in Russia to attack opposition politicians and cement the regimes control on power. To be considered as a candidate for membership of European Union, major political changes would be needed in Russia, including better adherence to the rule of law.

The Russian economy is highly unequal. Oligarchs control huge companies that dominate many industries. Russia is not seen as having a full free market economy. Although it did transition to capitalism after the fall of the Soviet Union, the lack of inclusivity in the wider Russian economy is a major barrier to a full free market. A Russian government would need to implement widespread changes to the economy and reduce the power of the oligarchs if Russia were to ever join the European Union.

Does Russia Actually Want To Be In The European Union?

A final thought we need to consider regarding Russia’s possible EU membership is whether Russia actually wants to join the European Union?

Russia does not want to join the European Union. Both the political establishment and public opinion are against Russia becoming an EU member. Although actual public opinion may be hard to measure, it appears there is not strong support in Russia for becoming an EU member state.

The current political establishment in Russia is not in favor of EU membership. Instead, they see Russia as having its own sphere of influence in areas of the former USSR and Russian Empire. Rather than joining the European Union, Russia has established its own Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that includes eastern European countries such as Belarus and central Asian states such as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Essentially, Russia is establishing its own EU and its current political leaders have no interest in joining the Western block.

Russia’s political opposition is currently weak due restrictions put in-place on its activities and repressive acts being undertaken by the state. However, there is not a large opposition movement in Russia that is advocating for EU membership. If politics in Russia became freer, it is possible a pro-EU party would emerge, however as this time it looks unlikely a strong opposition to the current political system will arise.

Although the current political class and opposition are not in favor of EU member, what does the Russian population think? Polls suggest that Russian’s are generally do not support European Union membership. However, it is hard to fully assess public opinion in Russia due to current political climate. Although it is likely the general population is not in favor of Russia joining the EU, it is likely there is a sizable block, probably made up of younger and more educated people, who are more in support of EU membership.

Global Affairs Explained

Global Affairs Explained is an ongoing project aiming to provide concise guides to world events. Focusing on international relations, history, and geo-politics, Global Affairs Explained uses original research and data to answer questions often not covered by traditional media.

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