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Ukraine and the EU: what to expect from the accession negotiations?

After many years of Ukraine’s progress on its European integration track and attaining its candidate status in June 2022, the country has reached a new historic milestone. On December 14, 2023, the European Council decided to open accession negotiations with Ukraine.

What does this mean? How close is Ukraine to EU membership? What will this new stage represent? Let’s take a closer look.

Address by the President of Ukraine to the participants of the European Council meeting. December 14, 2023.
Photo: Presidential Office of Ukraine

What’s next in Ukraine’s EU integration process?

EU integration is well-known for its complexity. A few crucial steps remain after the decision to open accession negotiations. Here’s a quick rundown of what they will likely be:

  • If any additional conditions are announced, Ukraine will need to implement those as well, based on what the European Council decides.
  • Next, the negotiation framework will be adopted. This sets the boundaries for the talks, so both sides have a clear understanding of the expectations.
  • The European Commission should also carry out a comprehensive analysis of the conformity of Ukraine’s legislation to the EU acquis, so-called “screening.”
  • The negotiation framework will open the path for Ukraine to open accession talks on the first so-called ‘negotiation cluster’ – Fundamentals, which is related to Justice, Fundamental Rights, Public Procurement, and some others.

Note that the EU’s legislation (acquis) is divided into 35 chapters united into 6 ‘cluster’ categories such as Fundamentals, Internal market, Competitiveness and inclusive growth, Green agenda and sustainable connectivity, Resources, agriculture and cohesion, and External relations. Conforming to these clusters (and consequently – the EU laws) is the bread and butter of both the negotiations and the membership itself. In simpler terms, the candidate country aligns its laws and regulations with the rules of the EU. This is then discussed and analyzed by both sides.

Ukraine may also expect to receive a ‘transitionary period’ on some of the integration conditions: some of the changes to Ukrainian laws may be allowed for a later time (including after full EU membership). A similar move was made regarding the membership talks for Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. This possibility will, of course, be subject to discussion and political decisions in the course of negotiations between Ukraine and the EU. 

What exactly are the EU – Ukraine negotiations? What will they include and how long will they last?

It’s important to note that the term ‘negotiations’ or ‘talks’ doesn’t fully explain what this stage is. In reality, the process represents a combination of two main elements:

  • The EU representatives review the candidate’s progress on integration reforms. Legislation and institutions are analyzed to understand how they conform to EU standards.
  • The two sides interpret, discuss, and plan the further implementation of such reforms, where necessary. This is what gives the stage its name. 

Based on the EU’s own doctrine, it’s impossible to fully predict the length of formal membership talks. Each candidate is unique and has their own journey. Some talks finish in several years, while other countries may be in talks for nearly a decade. Some of the most recent examples include Croatia which was in negotiations for six years, from 2005 until 2011. For Bulgaria and Romania, the road from opening accession negotiations to signing the Accession Treaty took five years.

How strong is Ukraine’s position entering the negotiation stage? 

33 chapters of EU law are usually considered subject to negotiation. This means that 33 categories of Ukrainian legislation are seen as being in various stages of reform, moving toward EU standards. 

Based on the most recent report of the European Commission, Ukraine has made good progress in several chapters compared to the past. They include environmental protection laws, digital transformation, intellectual property rights, free movement of capital, and others. The highest overall grades for Ukraine are for the Customs Union (4 out of 5), Energy (4), Foreign Relations (4), Security and Defense Policy (4), and Digital Transformation and Media (3,5). These all fall into the “good level of preparation” grade. 

A decent number are ranked as “moderately prepared” at 3 out of 5: Economic and Monetary Policy, Food Security, Scientific Development, and Freedom of Movement of Goods. Among the most problematic legal chapters ranked by the EU as “early stage preparation” are Ukraine’s agricultural and rural development policies, social and labor policies, freedom of movement of people, and some others.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy, European Council President Charles Michel,
and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen at the EU-Ukraine Summit in Kyiv. February 3, 2023.
Photo: Presidential Office of Ukraine

Ukraine has also fulfilled over 90% of the additional recommendations announced by the European Commission, says Ursula von der Leyen, President of the Commission. In some categories, Ukraine has even exceeded the recommendations, according to EU integration experts. It’s worth noting that the evaluation of the candidate’s progress is subject to a measure of political discretion on the part of the EU. The potential member can also argue and explain their progress. This means the negotiation process is somewhat flexible.

What was the experience of other countries in the EU membership negotiations?

No two EU membership journeys are the same. Firstly, each candidate country has its own strengths and challenges. Second, the EU is not a static organization. Even now, the European Union has launched discussions on its reforms and changes based on its internal dynamics. Political stances and membership demands have changed over the years.

Many experts note that Ukraine is at the level of reforms shown by the EU candidates in 2004 (Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, etc.). At the time, their progress was considered sufficient for full membership. However, European political reality has changed drastically over these 19 years. If these countries were to negotiate for membership in 2023, it’s nearly impossible to say whether they would have been accepted faster or slower.

Furthermore, each candidate country is different in how it approaches the formal talks. Poland, for example, involved more than 3,000 experts in their negotiation process. This ensured a very strong Polish position in these discussions. The negotiation teams of many other countries were much more modest.

Recent EU additions: Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania

Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia were the most recent countries to join the EU back in 2007 and 2013 respectively. Each of their experiences was different. For example, Croatia had to deal with the legacy of armed conflicts in the Balkans. One of its accession conditions was cooperation with the UN on the prosecution of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. Croatia also faced considerable difficulties regarding environmental legislation, which, at the time, was seen as totally incompatible with that of the EU.

Bulgaria and Romania, considered a “package deal” by the Union, joined despite difficulties in judiciary reforms and the fight against organized crime. Brussels accepted them as new members, yet noted that progress in these two areas would be closely monitored even after full accession. It took these EU members up to six years to pass the negotiation phase, but as one can easily see – each had unique political and historical circumstances. 

Serbia and its decade-long negotiation stage

Serbia is an EU candidate that has been in accession talks for nearly ten years. One of the individual conditions it faces is an extra negotiation chapter called “Relations with Kosovo”. This is another geopolitical challenge specific to the modern history of the Balkans. This bilateral issue needs to be solved for Serbia to join the Union, say EU diplomats.

The latest conclusions by the European Council noted that Serbia has made progress in its reforms but still needs further changes related to the judiciary, fundamental rights, and freedom of expression. Additionally, after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the EU has expressed regret about Serbia’s non-alignment with sanctions against Russia and Belarus. The lack of effort to combat foreign disinformation campaigns also remains an issue in Brussel’s view.

Moldova, its progress and connection to Ukraine

In a move reminiscent of the Bulgarian and Romanian accession, Ukraine and Moldova are currently viewed as a “joint deal” in terms of EU accession, and decision to open accession negotiations was made for both. The thinking seems to be that the two countries face similar regional challenges and that it may be easier to accept multiple ‘connected’ countries in one move. However, the negotiation processes for Moldova and Ukraine remain separate. 

The latest EU reports on Moldovan reforms both praise its progress in certain areas and outline remaining difficulties in others. Some areas such as common, foreign, and defense policy are praised by the European Commission as ‘moderate’ to ‘good’. 

Electoral and other democratic reforms have also been viewed positively by the Commission. Other sectors such as economic conditions, minority rights, and the labor market still face challenges.

Similar to Ukraine, Moldova’s EU negotiations and membership prospects are highly dependent on the overall situation in Europe, the EU’s political decisions, and obviously – Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It’s worth noting that Moldova faces Russian threats of its own, namely: Russian interference in the country’s internal affairs, as well as the Russian occupation forces in the Moldovan region of Transnistria.

Moldova’s vulnerability to Russia could be viewed as an obstacle by some, yet by the same measure, its accession to the EU could be seen as a move of support, aimed against Russia’s hybrid warfare. 

How is Ukraine handling EU integration in wartime?

It would be fair to say that despite the war and brutal Russian aggression, Ukraine is undergoing one of the most remarkable periods of pro-European effort. Even under constant Russian shelling and with heated battles along the frontline, Ukraine has redoubled its anti-corruption campaign with dozens of high-profile investigations. It has also strengthened the National Anti-corruption Bureau up to 1,000 employees. 

Daily work on reforms is being made in multiple Ukrainian institutions, including the parliament. An active dialogue is upheld with the EU to refine and improve these efforts. Progress has been noted and praised in both of the European Commission reports that have analyzed Ukraine’s move toward EU standards.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed an application for Ukraine’s membership in the European Union on the 4th day of full-scale war.
Photo: The Presidential Office of Ukraine

European integration retains powerful support among the vast majority of Ukraine’s population. A fully European future remains a deeply held belief among Ukrainians. This is one of the major reasons the country hasn’t given up on reforms even in wartime. From the Orange Revolution of 2004 to the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, and to the ongoing war, Ukrainians have sacrificed much in the name of freedom, democracy, and fundamental human rights.

EU membership is not a purely political or economic decision for Ukraine, but a goal that lies at the core of modern Ukrainian values. Values for which the Ukrainian people have stood, fought, and bled for at least 20 years. Values that Ukrainian soldiers continue to defend in the trenches against Russian armored assaults and bombardments.