The European Commission has recommended that the European Council open accession negotiations with Ukraine.
“Today is a historic day, because today the Commission recommends that the Council opens accession negotiations with Ukraine and with Moldova,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during a trip to Kyiv shortly before Ukraine started formal accession negotiations.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has worked very hard to bring Ukraine into the EU, which has proven to be a staunch supporter in Kyiv’s hour of need. The EU recently overtook the US as Ukraine’s most generous provider of financial aid.
“This is a strong and historic step that paves the way to a stronger EU with Ukraine as its member,” Zelenskiy posted on social media on Wednesday.
The 2023 EU Enlargement Package has also recommended opening negotiations with Moldova, granting candidate status to Georgia and opening accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In a report published on November 8, the Commission said that talks on Kyiv becoming a fully-fledged member of the EU should begin, more than a year after Ukraine was given candidate status.
As president of the EC Von der Leyen’s comments are a strong show of political support for Ukraine’s membership, but she does not have a mandate to set EU foreign policy, which remains the prerogative of the governments of the member states.
While von der Leyen has been an ardent supporter of Ukraine’s cause, whether EU countries will be ready by December to approve the talks with the war-torn country of more than 40mn people is uncertain. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has already said he will block Ukraine’s membership bid unless language laws that force Ukraine’s Hungarian speakers living in the west of the country to speak and study in Ukrainian are repealed.
Other countries like Poland are worried about the size and power of Ukraine’s agricultural sector and have already unilaterally banned the import of Ukraine’s grain, despite its strong political support for Kyiv in its war against Russia. And as bne IntelliNews reported, Ukraine cannot join the EU unless CAP is reformed.
Zelenskiy has attempted to head of problems with some less enthusiastic EU members, but linking Ukraine’s bid to the wider concerns over Europe’s security in the face of Russian aggression.
"Ukrainians on the battlefield are defending the very values on which Europe united and is uniting now. And this cannot be lost. That's why every step we take toward greater unification of Ukraine, and the European Union inspires our people. And this gives results to the whole of Europe and, I am sure of it, gives results to our common defence against a common enemy," the president noted.
Nevertheless, the EC remains upbeat and is keen to see the candidate countries start talks on eventual entry.
“In light of the results achieved by Ukraine and Moldova, and of the ongoing reform efforts, the Commission has recommended that the Council opens accession negotiations with both countries,” the European Commission press release states. “Furthermore, the Commission recommends that Council adopts the negotiating frameworks once Ukraine and Moldova have adopted certain key measures. The Commission stands ready to report to Council by March 2024 on the progress relating to these measures.”
According to the European Council, Ukraine has already made significant progress towards reform, despite being at war with Russia. In June 2022, Kyiv was praised for its progress towards meeting the requirements for joining the bloc, including reform of the judicial system and tackling high-level corruption. In all, Ukraine has already completed four of the seven tasks that the EU has set as pre-requisites for joining the EU, von der Leyen said.
Von der Leyen said Ukraine had now completed “well over 90 percent of the necessary steps”.
The 1,200-word report also praised Ukraine for decentralisation reform, new rules dictating the merit-based preselection of judges, increased efforts against organised crime, and the ratification of the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. Ukraine has a bad corruption problem and many of the EU’s demands concern improving the rule of law and stamping out graft.
Zelenskiy is well aware of the size of the mountain that Ukraine has yet to climb to secure eventual EU membership. Success on the battlefield is not enough to defeat such an enemy - faith in free, peaceful and united Europe is needed, the president’s office said in a press release.
“We need the strength of our institutions. We need motivational integration achievements that will prove that the resilience of our people on the battlefield and at all other levels of this difficult fateful confrontation is truly bolstered by the whole of Europe,” Zelenskiy said in the report.
Kyiv has already drawn up a Ukraine Plan that details what it intends to do to push through the badly needed reforms and will submit a full version of the plan in the coming weeks ahead of the start of negotiations slated to begin on December 15.
The EC's report also lays out a number of concerns, including slow reform in certain sectors such as merit-based recruitment and selection, job classification and salary reform, low-transparency in the selection of management-level prosecutors, the enforcement of decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, and lack of harmonisation between Ukraine’s legal framework with applicable international standards. It also criticised the lack of access to pluralistic media and the "precarious" situation for journalists.
“Ukraine continues to face tremendous hardship and tragedy provoked by Russia’s war of aggression, and yet the Ukrainians are deeply reforming their country, even as they are fighting a war that is existential for them,” von der Leyen, said on November 8. “The remaining reforms are already on their way, that’s good, and the commission commands these efforts. And on this basis we have recommended today that the council open accession negotiations.”
Following the Commission announcement, Zelenskiy praised the EU for what he called the “right step” in helping bring Kyiv closer to Europe.
“Our country must be in the European Union. Ukrainians deserve it both for their defence of European values and for the fact that even in times of full-scale war, we keep our word and develop state institutions. All the necessary decisions are being adopted. Thank you to everyone who helps!” he said.
Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, also on social media, described the decision as a “historic day” for the country.
“Our fight and sacrifices are not in vain. Our transformation is recognised. Our dreams and hopes are coming true. What got us through the most difficult time any European nation has faced in modern history was historical justice for the European nation of Ukraine and a European future for our children,” he said.
Ukraine has long held ambitions to join the European Union. In 2013, when President Viktor Yanukovych opted not to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the EU in favour of a turn towards Russia, protests on the streets eventually led to the Maidan Revolution, removing Yanukovych. The next year, new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed the deal.
In 2019, the Constitution of Ukraine was amended to require the government to seek membership of the EU, along with Nato. In February 2022, shortly before the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukrainian Zelenskiy formally applied for EU membership.
Despite the recommendation for negotiations to begin, it may however be many years until Ukraine becomes a fully-fledged member. Of the seven required reforms published by the Commission in 2022, Ukraine has completed just two, leaving work to be done on the Constitutional Court, anti-corruption, anti-money laundering, de-oligarchization and changing legislation on national minorities. It must also match the so-called Copenhagen criteria, a list of rules that require that states have institutions compatible with the bloc.
Also, during negotiations, Kyiv must go through the process of putting the entirety of EU law onto Ukraine’s statue books.
The other two candidate countries were also celebrating the accouchements. Moldovan President Maia Sandu thanked Brussels and said her country was “firmly on the path for EU membership and we will continue working relentlessly towards this goal”.
Crowds gathered in the main square in Tbilisi the same day to celebrate the EC’s decision to include Georgia in the accession process, which had not been certain.
The one-time poster boy of reform in the FSU, Georgia has been accused of backsliding in recent years after the country’s domestic politics was captured by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. When Ukraine and Moldova were both invited to join the EU last year in June, Georgia’s name was pointedly omitted.
“I rejoice with the people of Georgia,” Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili wrote online after the announcement that Georgia will be included in the process after all.
Still in the EU’s waiting room is Bosnia and Herzegovina which did not get approval yet again, having come short on expected membership criteria, von der Leyen said. Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia are all stuck in negotiations and will not be given candidate status any time soon.