On April 18, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky presented Matti Maasikas, the EU’s Envoy to Ukraine, with the answers to the first part of the questionnaire received from European Commission’s (EC) President Ursula von der Leyen during her visit to Ukraine last Friday alongside EU top diplomat Josep Borrell.
The observers have already described the Ukraine-EU paperwork exchange as unprecedented – and rightly so. For the EU’s bulky and formal bureaucratic machine, this speed of decision-making is certainly unique.
On March 1, just one day after Ukraine submitted its official membership bid, the European Parliament voted in support of granting Kyiv a candidate country status, after Ukraine submitted an official membership bid on Feb. 29. A few days later the leaders of EU member states gathered in Versailles, giving the green light to Ukraine’s EU aspirations.
The concerted action in Brussels, where consensus is not just a platitude but a special mode of work, is not only beneficial to Ukraine but also shows that the EU, which started out as a grand peace project created in the aftermath of World War II, views Russia’s incursion into Ukraine as an attack on its fundamentals.
Ukraine, which is looking to receive the status of a candidate country at the end of June and find relief in times of brutal war, acts in a highly-coordinated manner as well. Within the space of just a few days, various agencies managed to complete the 40-page long questionnaire – ten times shorter than the respective documents received, for example, by Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2016 – and are now working on the second part.
Once it has been completed and reviewed by the EC in accordance with the Copenhagen criteria, which encompass areas like democracy and rule of law, a functioning market economy, and the ability to take on the obligations of membership, the European Commission will issue its recommendations to EU member states.
While the EC is expected to recommend granting Ukraine candidate status, it does not mean that EU member states will be obliged to do so immediately. As the EU is a mix of supranational and intergovernmental institutions, the decision-making process is intricate and multi-level, leaving member states with the final say in virtually all key areas, including enlargement.
The main challenge for Ukraine in coming months is to get all 27 EU member states onboard as their approach, priorities, and attitude toward Kyiv differ. Some EU member states, like its autocratic enfant terrible Hungary, are trying to maintain relations with Russia while playing the contentious minority card, insisting that ethnic Hungarians in Transcarpathia are being discriminated against.
Others, like the Netherlands, prefer to stay cool-headed, underscoring that Ukraine is yet to complete the necessary reforms.
While these differences may not affect their decision to grant Ukraine the candidate status in June, the latter is by no means an end in itself. Rather, it is a declarative step followed by a corresponding negotiation procedure, a process that is both pivotal and cumbersome as it requires the consensus of all 27 member states on all 35 chapters of the negotiation legal framework.
Its starting date depends on two factors: the end of the Ukraine-Russia war and the readiness of EU member states to launch them.
While countries like Poland, the Baltic states, Ireland, and Italy are ready to expedite Ukraine’s membership once the war is over, key EU member states like Germany and France prefer to remain low-key.
Although German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, unlike his predecessor Angela Merkel, is more open to the idea of Ukraine’s EU membership, he is so far hesitating to lead the process and get Berlin’s followers onboard.
Meanwhile, France is busy finishing its electoral cycle, with incumbent President Emmanuel Macron preparing for a standoff with his far-right, Russia-friendly rival Marine Le Pen. The outcome of these elections is critical not just for France, but also for the EU, NATO, and Ukraine as Le Pen is a Euro- and NATO sceptic who opposes the EU’s enlargement.
The completion of reforms will likewise remain a serious challenge for Ukraine.
Even though Kyiv’s accession to the EU is happening in unprecedented circumstances, it does not mean that Brussels will turn a blind eye to the country’s
history of underdelivered promises. Ukraine has, indeed, been sluggish in many areas, completing just 56% of the Association Agreement’s Action Plan until 2024 in 2021.
Accordingly, Kyiv will be forced to speed up its reform agenda. The question is which of the changes Brussels will deem sufficient, as Ukraine will, at the same time, be preoccupied with rebuilding the country destroyed by the Russian army.
This does not necessarily bode trouble for Kyiv. Both Romania and Bulgaria, for example, have been members of the EU since 2007. However, due to the slow implementation of reforms in areas relating to corruption and the judicial sector, are not yet members of the Schengen zone.
Furthermore, the EU has already pledged to rebuild Ukraine, which means that the country will become a net recipient, regardless of whether or not it is a EU member.
Yet, because of a wide array of unknowns, it is virtually impossible to outline the exact timeframe of Ukraine’s accession to the EU even if Macron manages to beat Euro sceptic Le Pen and duly receive solid support in parliament afterward.
The good news is that in March, Ukraine managed to join the EU’s ENTSO-E Transmission System Operators ahead of schedule, with several figures, including Deputy Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Ihor Zhovkva and Ukraine’s Envoy to Germany Andriy Melnyk, recently asserting that accession would take place within 3-5 years.
The bad news is that Russia is not planning on relocating anywhere soon, leaving Ukraine with the only option it has for now: to do its best in filling out the second part of the questionnaire, defeating Russia, and preparing for arduous advocacy in the EU.
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