Ukraine is the candidate to the EU: European dream or a real opportunity?

19 January 2023 /

7 min

Ukraine is the candidate to the EU: European dream or a real opportunity? 

After the full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation into Ukraine, positive changes took place in Ukraine- EU relationship. In June 2022, the EU granted Ukraine candidate status, which marked a new page in Ukrainian history. What preceded this, at what stage is the implementation of European integration reforms, and what are the chances of Ukraine to get membership – read on. 

 In the year of 2014, the Ukrainian population made the choice to move towards the EU, a decision entailed by what would come to be known as the Revolution of Dignity, also designated as the Maidan Revolution. As a result, Ukraine not only withdrew from Russia’s zone of influence in the political and economic spheres, but also signed an Association Agreement with the EU. This document prompted Ukraine to change its legislation and introduce reforms that will in a long term process bring the country closer to European standards and values. Since the signing of the Association Agreement, Kyiv worked on the reformation of the state in order to fulfil the criteria. 

Eight years later, in February 2022, after the full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation, Ukraine has not changed its decision of European integration. Already after five days of the war the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky signed an application for Ukraine’s membership in the EU. Kyiv asked Brussels to consider the application under a special procedure, that is, to immediately begin a formal process, which will lead to granting the status of a candidate for membership. And indeed, this is what happened, resulting in an unprecedented example, since normally, the process to become an EU Member State is a long one, as the European Council usually takes years to accept applications. However the decision on Ukraine was made three months later, in the summer of 2022. 

European integration reforms: what is going on? 

According to the Deputy Prime Minister for the European and Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine Olga Stefanishyna, Ukraine has fulfilled almost 70% of its obligations under the Association Agreement with the EU and is aware of the need to complete all legal procedures in order to obtain EU’s membership. In the EU report for 2022 on the status of implementation of Ukraine’s obligations under the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU, it is highlighted that progress has been made in areas of digital transformation, customs and climate action, while reforms in areas such as environmental protection, energy and labour, audiovisual media still needs much work.

Before awarding Ukraine candidate status, the European Commission published a memo under the title ‘Opinion on the EU membership application by Ukraine’, which indicates  the current shortcomings and advantages in the implementation of reforms. In general, the European Commission assesses positively the changes in the political and economic fields.

“Ukraine is well advanced in reaching the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities. …  Ukraine has continued its strong macro-economic record, demonstrating a noteworthy resilience with macroeconomic and financial stability ensured also after Russia’s invasion in February 2022. This reflects not only a very strong political determination, but also relatively well-functioning institutions”, – referred to in the opinion.

However, despite the positive aspects and progress made, Ukraine has not reached European standards and it will have to continue to improve to do so. Without neglecting the Ukrainian effort, the candidate status was given to Ukraine before the due time, with the implementation of seven reforms chapters by Kyiv until the end of the year 2022 is one of the conditions for obtaining candidate status. Moreover, the decision of the European Commission states that Brussels reserves the right to withdraw the status of a candidate, as well as to transfer the country to another level. In short, in order to maintain the status of a candidate, it is necessary to reform the Constitutional Court as well as the judicial system; enforce more anti-corruption, anti-oligarchic and anti-money laundering laws; harmonise the audiovisual legislation with European legislation;

Nevertheless, Ukraine has demonstrated that it will not give  up on its EU accession and Kyiv promises to continue reforms, despite the full-scale war with Russia.

“Following the emergence of Ukraine’s candidate status, the approach of national legislation to European and promotion of EU policies took a new impulse to the level of effective implementation. Despite the full-scale war, we continue to implement the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU, we continue to systematically remove barriers between us. This is the basis of our recovery and development”, – said Olga Stefanishyna, Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine. 

Ukraine is ready for quick accession to the European Union, but the EU is not

Now, the terms of obtaining membership depend on the fulfilment of all the conditions set by Brussels and although Kyiv is ready to complete them quickly, the EU does not see the possibility of Ukraine joining under an accelerated procedure. Thus, during the joint briefing with the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyi, stated that Ukraine will implement seven recommendations for joining the European Union by the end of 2022. The next step should rest in  the accession negotiations, and the Ukrainian government plans to start them before the end of 2023. 

“During 2023, we plan to lay the foundation and start the negotiation process regarding membership,” emphasized Olga Stefanishyna. “In parallel with the fulfilment of political conditions, we will conclude additional agreements that will allow us to erase the economic and social barriers between Ukraine and the EU.”

Plans for a quick accession to the EU are also confirmed by the statement of Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal. According to him, Ukraine plans to be completely ready to join by the end of 2024.

“European integration work has not stopped for a single day. And by the end of 2024, we plan to be fully ready to join the European Union. This is our valuable and civilizational path”, – Shmyhal said, Ukrinform reports.

However, the European Member States do not have rose-coloured glasses on this matter and are more realistic about the situation. For example, the Hungarian diplomat and European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy, Oliver Vargei, believes that it is not yet possible to talk about the schedule for the start of negotiations on Ukraine’s accession to the EU, writes the German edition Welt. According to him, it is not feasible for Ukraine to complete seven chapters so quickly. In this regard, Brussels cannot yet establish a schedule for possible negotiations. In addition, there seems to be no hint of an accelerated procedure for Ukraine.

“Given the extensive work required to prepare for participation in the EU’s internal market and many other important policy areas, the entire preparations for accession will likely take more than a year or two”, – the European commissioner said.

Estonian MEP Marina Kaljurand was even more direct in the interview to Delfi. According to her, Ukrainians should not torture their hopes about possible accession to the EU in a year. The negotiations will be difficult and long, but there will always be room to support Ukraine. 

“I will be frank, Ukraine is not ready for membership. The fight against corruption, legal reforms, democratic reforms, there is still a lot to be done. (…) We will help restore Ukraine after victory, we will help with reforms to prepare it for joining the EU”, – Marina Kaljurand said.

While the Estonian MEP estimates that Ukraine’s chances for EU membership are quite high provided the integration reforms, other european  political leaders, such as France’s President Emmanuel Macron, exposed a more sceptical forecast defending that it will take decades for Ukraine to be accepted into the European Union. At the same time, the President of the European Commission emphasised that, from now on, the future of Ukraine in the family of European countries depends on the actions of the Ukrainians themselves.

The admission process is very flexible. Everything depends on what you do, what you achieve. Therefore, the speed and quality are in the hands of Ukraine, which we will, of course, support with everything we can,” von der Leyen said in an interview for TSN. 

Long way, but with a successful ending

Despite the incompleteness of the reforms provided under the framework of the Association Agreement, Ukraine still received the status of a candidate member of the EU. This action was truly a symbolic political gesture, seeing that Ukrainians are currently fighting in a conflict that will shape the future of the European continent as well as defending European values. This EU’s decision became a sign of hope for the nation, being this a strong political support during the full-scale war with Russia. And this is crucial since many Ukrainians already expressed to feel part of the “European family”.

To conclude, the reforms of European integration must be implemented, not only the political future of Ukraine depends on this, but also the quality of life of its citizens. Ukrainians should prepare for a long road of reformation, which may not be easy, but it will pay-off in the long run. 

This article was first published in the issue 37 of the magazine

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