The European Commission agrees to start negotiations on EU membership with Ukraine and Moldova. And Georgia is to be granted candidate status.
European top officials, the Ukrainian government, and the opposition are almost unanimous in calling the decision a historic positive. "This is a very serious stage that Ukraine has reached today in the 10 years of our struggle for our strategic dream," MP Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze (European Solidarity faction), chairperson of the parliamentary committee on European integration, tells LIGA.net.
But there are two new challenges ahead: to approve the European Commission's recommendation with the consent of all 27 EU member states and to get a fresh "framework for negotiations" by fulfilling the new requirements of the European Union. To put things simply, there are four of them.
LIGA.net outlines what there is to expect on the European integration track next.
WHAT HAPPENED. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen praised Ukraine for its progress in reforms during the war. Kyiv has fulfilled 90% of what the EU expected of it when granting candidate status in the summer of 2022.
"Based on this, we recommended starting negotiations on Ukraine's accession to the EU," von der Leyen said.
According to her, the main progress is in the reforms of the Constitutional Court, the judiciary, anti-corruption processes, the fight against money laundering, limiting the influence of oligarchs, the new law on media, and progress on national minorities.
However, in order to adopt a negotiation framework (in fact, a negotiation plan), Ukraine still needs to improve on four issues, the European Commission report says: the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), the National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NACP), the law on lobbying, and the position of national minorities.
The European Commission published even more recommendations for Ukraine in a very detailed 150-page report. In the anti-corruption field, it is to ensure the independence of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office (SAPO), to abolish the controversial "Lozovyi amendments" in criminal proceedings, the Anti-Corruption Action Center NGO notes. In the judicial sector, it is the completion of the selection to the CCU, elimination of corruption risks in the Supreme Court, audit, and modernization of the judicial system, says Mykhailo Zhernakov, head of DeJure judiciary watchdog.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy considers the European Commission's recommendation a "pure positive" and the right step in history. But he expects a decision from the European Council (in fact, the EU leaders' summit) in December.
WHY THIS MATTERS
Find a consensus. Based on the European Commission's recommendation, the European Council may decide to open negotiations as early as December 14-15. This requires the consent of all 27 member states. Hungary currently seems to be the biggest obstacle. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has promised to block the start of negotiations if Ukraine does not revise the language law.
Klympush-Tsintsadze believes that Ukraine should continue the difficult dialog with Hungary. And at the same time, it should inform the other 26 EU members about what Ukraine has done to protect national minorities.
Overcoming Hungary's resistance also depends on the partners.
Budapest will use the issue of EU enlargement to blackmail Brussels into restoring access to EU funds, which it has been denied for its backsliding on democracy, MP Yaroslav Yurchyshyn (Golos faction) tells LIGA.net.
EU Ambassador to Ukraine Katarina Mathernova does not rule out that one or more countries may not agree to open negotiations, in which case additional consultations will be needed, which will be a step backward.
But Mathernova believes that this will not happen to Ukraine, as "extraordinary work has been done."
Already last week, the head of the European Council, Charles Michel, and the leaders of the partner countries started talking to Orban, says Ihor Zhovkva, deputy head of the President’s Office: "I am confident that no political position of certain leaders of certain states will prevent us from getting the solution that is ripe for the taking."
Get a framework. A positive decision by the European Council will not mean the de facto start of negotiations, Klympush-Tsintsadze stresses. To do this, the European Commission needs to formulate a framework – in other words, a negotiation plan.
The EC is ready to start working on it, including screening legislation. However, it recommends adopting the framework after Ukraine has caught up in four areas: 1) increase the NABU staff; 2) remove restrictions on the NACP's powers; 3) adopt a law on lobbying as part of the anti-oligarchic course; 4) adopt laws to implement the Venice Commission's recommendations to laws on national minorities, language, media, and education.
The bill on NABU staff is already in the Rada, says Yurchyshyn, a member of the Anti-Corruption Committee. A proportional increase in the staff of the SAPO and the High Anti-Corruption Court is also needed to ensure that NABU investigations are effectively reviewed in court.
The NACP had developed a draft law on lobbying, says Klympush-Tsintsadze: "There are critical comments to them. But perhaps some of the developments can be taken as a basis for registering the draft law and moving forward."
The fourth point – about national minorities – is more complicated. Ukrainian laws on education, language, and media have been criticized not only by Hungary but also by the Hungarian EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Oliver Varhelyi, Yurchyshyn recalls.
"The EU recommendations again do not contain a clear definition of what to do," explains the MP. "There is room for manipulation and ambiguous rendering."
Technical work can begin immediately after a positive decision by the European Council, von der Leyen assured. In March 2024, the Commission will publish a new report on Ukraine's progress, so negotiations can begin in the spring.
The membership negotiations themselves are not a quick story – Ukraine will have to adapt its legislation to EU norms in 35 chapters.
The Ukrainian government's statements that it wants to complete the negotiations in two years may cause disappointment, Mathernova warns. But it is realistic to expect membership by the end of the decade.
There is also a risk that the closer Ukraine gets to the EU, the more Central European countries may perceive it as a competitor for EU funds and markets, warned Radio Liberty's European editor, Rikard Jozwiak.
There have already been manifestations of this – conflicts with Polish farmers and carriers, Klympush-Tsintsadze notes. Competition can occur not only with close friends and neighbors.
"We will see competition from those who will be affected by certain sectors of our economy," she explains. "Today we spoke with colleagues from the French European Affairs Committee. The lion's share of them are already growing concerned about how the agricultural support policy for farming will work if we move towards the EU."
Every country faced similar challenges before joining the EU, she adds: "They all managed to overcome them, so we will too."
There was some positive news on the speed issue. Commissioner for Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi said that the EU will be able to accept new members without waiting for the completion of the EU reform, which began this fall.
This approach means a much better position for Ukraine, says Yurchyshyn. Previously, the rhetoric was that the EU itself should be reformed first, and only then can we talk about enlargement.
"We are critically interested in ensuring that these processes do not become dependent," explains Klympush-Tsintsadze. "If a country is ready to join and has done its homework, then incomplete EU reforms should not become a deterrent to the last stages of accession.
However, it is too early to say that the position voiced by Varhelyi is a consensus of all EU capitals, the lawmaker concludes: "It's good that the Commission has this attitude. But still, this decision is made by the member states. This discussion is still in its early stages."