Tangible results we can expect from EU-Ukraine Summit, NV analysis
On February 2, a large delegation of the European Commission headed by its President Ursula von der Leyen arrived in the Ukrainian capital. (Photo:REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his team are expecting a rapid onset of accession talks with the EU, while the European Commission seems to have other plans.
On Feb. 2, a large EU delegation, headed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, and Chief European Diplomat Josep Borrell, arrived in Kyiv. They came to attend the EU-Ukraine Summit, set to open the next day.
This will be the first time Ukraine participates in the summit as an EU candidate. Therefore, Ukrainian officials have high hopes for the event.
In his evening address on Jan. 31, Zelenskyy said he expects “news for Ukraine.” In particular, he hopes for “decisions that will correspond to the level of interaction between our institutions and the EU and our progress.” Zelenskyy is sure this progress is happening despite the full-scale war.
Ukrainian PM Denys Shmyhal is similarly upbeat: he believes Kyiv’s EU accession talks could start as early as this year, paving the way for Ukraine to become a full member in two years.
However, the EU isn't so optimistic about Ukrainian progress. Western outlets, citing diplomatic sources, report that the European diplomats will recognize Ukraine's progress within requirements for the EU accession, but no dates for full membership negotiations will be set.
NV’s source in EU’s diplomatic circles didn't mention any specific expected outcomes of the summit, either. The summit is meant to reassure further support of Ukrainian integration into the EU, but the next step will be clear only after all European recommendations will be fully implemented by Ukraine.
Things are going well – but not all of them
In June, 2022, the European Commission granted candidate status to Ukraine and specified seven conditions to be fulfilled: reforming the Constitutional Court; continuation of judicial reform; anti-corruption measures, including the appointment of the head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office; combating money laundering; implementation of the anti-oligarch law; harmonization of audiovisual and media legislation with EU law; and changes to legislation on national minorities.
Positive assessment of this "homework" may open to Ukraine – as Kyiv officials hope – a way to the EU accession talks, the next step of the integration process.
Maria Mezentseva, an MP from the ruling Servant of the People party and deputy head of the Parliamentary Committee on European Integration, told NV that Ukrainian lawmakers have adopted all the relevant laws and regulations back in December 2022.
“It doesn't mean that we are sitting around after completing the task,” she said.
“The next step is to implement the adopted laws. Judicial reforms are ongoing. Competition for the Post of head of National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) is open, and so on.”
But how well are these targets being met? Solomiia Bobrovska, another Ukrainian MP and a member of the Parliament Committee on Foreign Policy, told NV that she doesn't want to estimate which of the EU requirements have been met and which haven't. Therefore, she will “keep her fingers crossed” for Friday, when the summit is to take place. At the same time, the MP briefly added that Europeans may still have notes for Kyiv on the issue of corruption and de-oligarchization.
“I would really like to see our government be able to prove the fulfilment of all the seven conditions of our ‘homework’ amid the (recent) corruption scandal in the Defense Ministry," Bobrovska said.
Marianna Fakhurdinova, a researcher at the New Europe Center, a Kyiv based think-tank, notes that Ukraine has actually done a lot of work during the seven months of its candidacy. According to her, a coalition of Ukrainian specialized think tanks rated Ukraine's progress at 5.8 points out of 10.
In particular, the country has made significant progress with reforming its judiciary — after almost a year of inactivity, the High Council of Justice resumed its work. In addition, important laws on media and national minorities were approved. However, the Europeans may have questions about at least two issues.
“The reform of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine (CCU) remains incomplete,”Fakhurdinova said.
“The law on the competitive selection of judges to the CCU, adopted in December 2022, was not approved by the EU and the Venice Commission, and needs to be amended.”
The Ukrainian Parliament approved the law in a version that harbors risks to the independence of the court, despite opposition from public experts and representatives of the Venice Commission.
The researcher also notes that the anti-oligarchic reform remains stalled, as “due to the lack of the Venice Commission's opinion, Ukraine cannot amend the anti-oligarchic law and start implementing it in practice.”
A senior European diplomat confirmed to NV that the reform of the CCU is viewed as the most problematic area. He emphasized that the EU has made it clear: this law must comply with the recommendations of the Venice Commission.
So far, Ukraine has not addressed this issue. Still, Ukrainian Prime Minister Shmyhal has promised the issue of the selection of judges to the CCU would be resolved in the coming weeks, without providing any specific details of the process.
It’s not only the CCU's reform that disturbs European Commissioners. One of European diplomats said that Ukraine needs to significantly step up its anti-corruption efforts. Although, the last two weeks look “very promising,” they added.
On Feb. 1, in anticipation the European Commissioners' visit, Ukrainian law enforcement officers conducted a “marathon" of searches of officials, suspected of corruption. They were held at the homes of the former Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, Defense Ministry officials, tax officials, former Energy Minister Ihor Nasalyk, and former pro-Russian MP Vadym Stolar. Sources in the presidential team told NV that the arrival of the European Commission was one of the reasons for the raids. They promised “it will always be like this now.”
This was indirectly confirmed by Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin, who commented on the charges and searches: “My signal to all officials at all levels, wherever they are, is that there will be no return to the old times; Ukraine is on the European path and will not deviate from it.”
In addition to addressing the issue of corruption, the Europeans will also recommend Ukraine to play it safe and find out the position of the Venice Commission on the law on national minorities. There are also questions about the media law and the anti-oligarch law.
As it stands, the European Commission is likely to simply recognize Ukraine's progress in implementing the reforms. According to a European official, a new assessment of Ukraine's implementation of these seven points will be made in October, at the latest.
Could Ukraine join the EU within two years?
The Ukrainian PM’s statements about the possibility of joining the EU in two years sound dubious even to his compatriots. In particular, Andriy Melnyk, former Ukrainian ambassador to Germany and serving Deputy Foreign Minister, told NV Radio that he would like to share PM’s optimism, and would like to make leaps and bounds toward this goal. However, this process, he said, will take a little longer.
"I think any terms would be a guess; I would say, it could be five years," Melnyk said.
The deputy minister is sure this is a more realistic timeframe, but only if Ukrainians act coherently, without any internal disputes ,and if “everyone pitches in.”
“If all political forces and the entire society understand it, they will be ready to make sacrifices. Because gaining EU membership entails a certain sacrifice that every Ukrainian must make," Melnyk believes.
“It means giving up some of your established visions that you can offer a box of chocolates somewhere and hope that someone will do something for you (in exchange).”
Fakhurdinova notes that this is not the first time that Ukrainian officials have expressed overly high expectations about the pace of Ukraine's movement toward the EU. She said that in the first months of the war, the chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament called on European countries to immediately admit Ukraine into the EU, which is technically impossible. After receiving the candidate status and the seven “steps” that came with it in June 2022, Ukrainian officials claimed that they would be able to implement all the reforms needed by the end of the year. They also failed to meet this ambitious deadline.
“Frankly speaking, unrealistic estimations of the accession to the EU in 2-3 years create inflated expectations in society, which may eventually lead to disappointment,” the researcher believes.
"As of now, in the most optimistic scenario Ukraine may expect the opening of negotiations in almost a year, or at the end of 2023. However, there are also serious doubts about this scenario.”
She said it will also be a political decision that depends not only on Ukrainian progress in the “seven steps” implementation, but on the consensus between all 27 EU members on Ukrainian integration.
Fakhurdinova stressed that various countries needed different timeframes to harmonize their legislation with EU law – from 3 to 7 years, on average. The signing of the accession agreement, its ratification, etc., also takes a certain amount of time — about 1-2 years.
Melnyk is convinced that Ukraine has done everything its efforts to be positively viewed by Europeans. Still, it's expected that Ukraine will be able to start membership negotiations this year.
“I believe that we will be able to launch this new stage (accession negotiations) this year, because it will be irreversible, let's call it a line, a Rubicon,” the diplomat said.
“When we cross the second Rubicon of the candidacy, we will be able to carry out all the negotiating positions very quickly.”
EU integration is not the only issue
Bobrovska believes the EU delegation’s visit to Kyiv has symbolic meaning, as Ukraine is anxious about a new possible Russian offensive in the coming months. That's why the summit taking place in Kyiv demonstrates to Ukrainians and Europeans that it is okay to work with Ukraine, despite all the risks.
NV's source also considers this summit an important signal for Ukrainians. Beside the question of Ukrainian integration into the EU, other important issues will be discussed during the summit: European response to the Russian aggression (with new sanctions), Zelenskyy's “peace formula,” holding Russia accountable for its crimes, and post-war reconstruction.
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