Ukraine is ready to open accession negotiations with the EU. The European Commission advises government leaders to start those talks early next year, if Kiev implements a few final reforms at least before then to fight corruption and strengthen minority rights.
This is stated in the still confidential draft advice that the Commission will discuss on Wednesday. In mid-December, European government leaders will decide whether to adopt the Commission’s proposal. This requires the agreement of all leaders. EU diplomats anticipate objections from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. He not only cherishes his good ties with Moscow, he also hopes that by being obstructive he can also put pressure on Brussels to release blocked EU subsidies for his country.
The draft opinion links the opening of negotiations with Kiev to a number of outstanding reforms. These relate to combating corruption – such as a law against lobbying and proper registration of the financial interests of directors – and better protection of the rights of Russian, Hungarian and Romanian minorities in Ukraine.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was confident that the final steps were being taken during a lightning visit to Kiev last weekend. “You can do this and you can do it quickly,” she told Ukrainian lawmakers. “I am convinced that you can achieve your ambitious goal: that is, that the historic decision to open the accession negotiations process will be taken already this year.” Involved EU officials do not expect draft advice to be substantially adjusted when the Commission presents it on Wednesday.
Ukraine was given the status of candidate EU member in June last year, together with Moldova. Von der Leyen had made a strong case for this. The leaders agreed, knowing that refusing candidate status would play into Moscow’s hands. Partly under pressure from the Netherlands, the leaders drew up seven conditions that Ukraine must meet before actual negotiations can begin. This includes improvements to the rule of law with independent judges, guaranteeing a free media, combating corruption and protecting minorities.
In Kiev, Von der Leyen said Ukraine had fulfilled “more than 90 percent” of the conditions. “The scale and depth of the reforms you have introduced are astonishing,” said the Commission President. She assured that the Commission has not turned a blind eye in assessing progress and that Kiev has not asked for flexibility.
The draft opinion therefore proposes to start negotiations, provided that the last few percent of reforms are completed in the coming weeks. The accession negotiations themselves are expected to take years. It would be the first time that the EU has negotiated EU membership with a country at war. In addition to Ukraine, the Commission also recommends starting negotiations with Moldova if that country initiates a number of reforms.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Koeleba said at a conference in Berlin last week that his country has implemented “very painful reforms”. He emphasized the strategic importance for the EU if Ukraine becomes a member. “To be a bigger player, the EU must become bigger,” Koeleba said. At the same conference, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said she expected “a clear message” from leaders in December. According to Baerbock, the EU cannot afford “gray zones” at its external borders. “I feel the European heartbeat in Kiev,” said the German minister.
For the candidate countries in the Western Balkans – Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia – the Commission will present a new growth and investment plan of six billion euros on Wednesday. This concerns two billion euros in subsidies and four billion euros in cheap loans. These candidates (as well as potential candidate Kosovo) will only receive that money if they improve the rule of law and tackle corruption. The Commission is particularly critical of Bosnia.
The Balkan countries can count on gradual access to the European internal market. In this way, the Commission hopes to accelerate EU membership for the Balkan countries. Some have been waiting for this for over ten years. Austria, Slovenia and Croatia are the biggest advocates for more European ambition in the Balkans, also to dispel the feeling that Ukraine and Moldova are being favored.