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EU ambassador to Ukraine: ‘Even Putin can’t stop Ukraine’s accession’

Katarina Mathernova, the EU ambassador to Ukraine, walks through the headquarters of the EU Delegation to Ukraine in central Kyiv on Nov. 8, the day when the European Commission recommended to begin membership talks with Ukraine, bringing Ukraine a step closer to EU accesssion. (Liza Pyrozhkova/The Kyiv Independent)
by Olga Rudenko November 8, 2023 8:07 PM 11 min read
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Ukraine is now one step closer to its strategic goal of becoming a member of the European Union.

On Nov. 8, the European Commission published its annual enlargement report. In it, the commission confirmed that Ukraine had completed enough of the steps laid out in seven recommendations it received from the EU last year.

The commission also recommended that membership talks with Ukraine formally begin – pending several remaining legislative changes that Ukraine still needs to implement.

Nowhere was the excitement more palpable than at the headquarters of the EU Delegation to Ukraine in central Kyiv.

Here, Katarina Mathernova, the EU ambassador to Ukraine since September, looked tired and exhilarated – like someone who just completed a historic task but is bracing for even more work ahead.

Mathernova sat down with the Kyiv Independent’s chief editor Olga Rudenko for an exclusive interview on Nov. 8 to share her outlook on this historic milestone and the steps that lie ahead.

The Kyiv Independent: We are talking on an extremely important day in the history of Ukraine-EU relations. Can you summarize what is happening today?

Katarina Mathernova: Today, Nov. 8, is one of the milestones in Ukrainian integration into the European Union. Today the European Commission published its annual so-called enlargement report. It covers the countries on the accession track to join the European Union. There are 10 countries (currently on the track): six countries of the western Balkans, Turkey, and for the first time, historically, today’s evaluation will also cover Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia.

Within this report, we also have the evaluation of the famous seven steps that were outlined in June of last year, when Ukraine got candidate status.

I'm delighted to say that the report contains a very explicit recommendation to the European Council to open negotiations (with Ukraine).

The Kyiv Independent: What happens next, after this recommendation is made? When do the talks start?

Katarina Mathernova: Well, there are still some steps before the talks can start. The recommendation that is published today also envisions that before the so-called negotiating mandate can be given to the European Commission, Ukraine still needs to take four steps. Those will be evaluated in a report, on the basis of which the European Commission can get the negotiating mandate.

The four steps are: enacting a law that would increase the number of people working in NABU (the National Anti-Corruption Bureau); second is to make smaller amendments to the law on asset declarations; third is enacting a law on lobbying as part of the anti-oligarch framework; and fourth is the implementation in Ukrainian legislation of the recommendations of the Venice Commission on national minorities.

Katarina Mathernova (L), the European Union's ambassador to Ukraine, sits for an interview with the Kyiv Independent's chief editor Olga Rudenko at the headquarters of the EU Delegation to Ukraine in central Kyiv on Nov. 8. (Liza Pyrozhkova/The Kyiv Independent)

The Kyiv Independent: So there are these new four recommendations, but Ukraine originally had seven steps, out of which only three weren’t fully completed.

Katarina Mathernova: The report clearly states that Ukraine has sufficiently fulfilled the (original) seven steps. And (Ukraine) meets the so-called Copenhagen criteria on the strength of institutions, rule of law, human rights, and protection of minorities. It sufficiently meets the seven steps for the commission to recommend the opening of negotiations.

The Kyiv Independent: So does it mean that Ukraine is closer to accession than it’s ever been?

Katarina Mathernova: Absolutely! It's amazing news and we have come together a tremendously long way. Honestly, to do these kinds of difficult reforms in such a short period of time, and while fighting a full-scale war is amazing. It's remarkable.

The Kyiv Independent: Do you think that this report may come as unexpected to anyone – either in the EU or in Ukraine?

Katarina Mathernova: I think that people who perhaps don't follow the details, once they read (and I strongly encourage people to read – not the 150 pages necessarily, but the recommendations for the 10 countries) – if you read across the 10 countries, it is quite evident how much Ukraine has done. But perhaps for people who don't follow daily news in such detail, it will be quite surprising.

The Kyiv Independent: Is Ukraine on any deadline to complete these four recommendations?

Katarina Mathernova: There is a deadline in the sense that it's in Ukraine's interest to move as quickly as possible. There is an indicative date of March of next year when we would like for the European Commission to get the negotiating mandate. So I think it's in Ukraine's interest to do it as quickly as possible.

One or even two of the laws are already registered in the (Verkhovna) Rada. So I think these are achievable objectives.

"We have come a tremendeously long way together," EU Ambassador to Ukraine Katarina Mathernova told the Kyiv Independent on Nov. 8, as the European Commission was announcing its recommendation to start membership talks with Ukraine. (Liza Pyrozhkova/The Kyiv Independent)

The Kyiv Independent: Some of the recommendations concern the very important area of Ukraine fighting corruption and the influence of oligarchs. But what would you say to the people who say it is not fair to demand from Ukraine that it fights corruption now, when it is already fighting a war?

Katarina Mathernova: I think the two go hand in hand. On many things, an agreement was found thanks to the unity and togetherness that you have during wartime. I think that joining the European Union is an overarching strategic objective of the country. Frankly, that's why you're fighting the war. For Mr. Putin to see Ukraine being a prosperous and peaceful member of the European Union is a threatening prospect.

And so I think that fighting corruption and war actually go hand in hand. And this is an area where a lot has been done in a very short period of time.

The Kyiv Independent: Do you agree with the assessment of your former colleague, ex-European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who said in an interview last month that Ukraine is “totally corrupt” and it is not ready to join the EU, and it is wrong to get Ukrainians’ hopes up.

Katarina Mathernova: I don't agree with that. I think that is a view of Ukraine from many years ago. I have worked on Ukraine for the last nine years and I have seen Ukraine changing in front of my own eyes.

I'm not saying there's no corruption in Ukraine. I'm not naive. But there is definitely a positive trend. It takes time. It takes time in every country. But I think the determination is there. The anti-corruption institutions that we all helped set up are working very well. There is very strong civic oversight, whether it's the strength of the Ukrainian civil society or the free media – I think there is a whole society effort to move in that direction. And I think the investigations against very prominent people are one demonstration of that.

I think that assessment (of Juncker) was probably valid at some point, but I certainly do not believe it's valid today.

The Kyiv Independent: So you think it is outdated?

Katarina Mathernova: I think so. I have a lot of admiration and respect for President Juncker, for whom I worked. I think it's complicated for people to see just how much the country has changed during the full-scale invasion if you don't experience these changes.

The EuroMaidan (Revolution) was a huge milestone – and so was, equally, the full-scale invasion. I think there have been positive changes in this country that have happened in the last 20 months that if you are not dealing with Ukraine or not living here it's not as easy to see.

The Kyiv Independent: People from outside Ukraine who view Ukraine as corrupt, this is something they are often missing – that there’s a positive trend of fighting corruption.

Katarina Mathernova: Yes, and the trend has accelerated since the full-scale invasion – that's the amazing thing. And because Transparency International measures perceptions, not reality, I often hear comments like: “Ukraine and Russia are corrupt in the same way.” Well, that's an absurd comment. Obviously in a country where corruption is a topic of government sessions and Rada (parliament) and public discourse and media – obviously the perception (of corruption) is going to be higher. But to compare democratic Ukraine fighting for its survival and the rotten system in Russia – it doesn't hold water.

EU Ambassador to Ukraine Katarina Mathernova speaks to the Kyiv Independent at the EU Delegation to Ukraine headquarters in Kyiv on Nov. 8. (Liza Pyrozhkova/The Kyiv Independent)

The Kyiv Independent: I completely agree with you that the full-scale invasion gave a new impetus to the fight against corruption. That's definitely true on the level of people and the level of civil society. But do you believe that the Ukrainian leadership also has that same impetus? Are they really committed to fighting corruption right now?

Katarina Mathernova: Well, I'm looking at what we have requested: the appointment of an anti-corruption prosecutor, running a transparent process and appointment of the new head of NABU, finalization of the judicial governance bodies – a lot of difficult institutional steps. And they have been done, and these institutions are working. I don't think a week passes without seeing investigations against (high-profile) people. The head of the Supreme Court is investigated. The minister of defense was dismissed. There was never any allegation against him personally, but he was dismissed because of corruption in military procurement. There is evidence around us that this is an all-country effort.

But this is not something one can stop. One needs to go further. Ukraine is fighting the war for a new Ukraine, not a Ukraine of the past.

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The Kyiv Independent: And that is exactly why joining the EU is an emotional cause for Ukrainians. I'm sorry, but none of the member countries have fought and seen their people killed for the right to join the European Union — Ukrainians have. So you can understand why some people in Ukraine feel that, considering the circumstances, the EU is setting the bar for Ukraine’s accession too high. Given how important it is for Ukrainians to join the EU, can you honestly say that the EU is doing enough for Ukrainians? Could the EU cut Ukraine more slack, considering the situation?

Katarina Mathernova: Look, I do understand how in a time of full-scale war one’s sensitivity is higher. And that it may feel like, okay, give us a pat on the back or cut us some slack.

I can honestly say that I continue to be impressed by how committed the European Union is to Ukraine – and I mean both institutionally and also the population in Europe. I looked at the recent European Barometer survey and there is overwhelming support for humanitarian aid, even military and financial aid. And even on such a sensitive issue as joining the European Union – well over half of the population is for it. This is really unprecedented.

I don't think that cutting slack is in the interest of Ukraine. The EU is a very complex body. The norms that bind it are very demanding. And so there will be a technical process and it's going to be frustrating at every turn, there's no question, but the reforms will push Ukraine in a modernizing direction that is in the country's interest. When President (Ursula) von der Leyen was here, we had a meeting with (Verkhovna Rada) Speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk, who was telling her, “Look, we are doing the reforms for ourselves, not for the EU because they're going to change the way our country functions.”

Ukraine's Preisdent Volodymyr Zelensky (L) welcomes European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (R) during her visit to Kyiv on Nov. 4, 2023. (Ursula von der Leyen/X)

Two years ago, it would have been very difficult to imagine this level of support and commitment and solidarity in Europe.

The Kyiv Independent: And yet there are some current trends in the EU that are rather worrying. In some countries, pro-Russian forces are rising to power – such as in your home country, Slovakia. And it can feel like the EU is moving in the direction where there might not be a place for Ukraine, where some members will not want Ukraine as a part of it. How does Ukraine fit in this future?

Katarina Mathernova: Look, there are elections all the time. Among the 27 members, there are always elections somewhere. Some are nervous about this or that change in this or that country, but that is the daily business of existing in a collective that has 27 members. What I think is increasing and I think President Von der Leyen articulated it very strongly in her speech at the (Verkhovna) Rada is: We want Ukraine in. For Ukraine’s sake but also for our sake. We live in a world where size and weight matters. And the European Union will be stronger with Ukraine in it.

Is it going to be a non-controversial process to get there? No. The countries have to unanimously go through each of the steps on the way. So there will be many hiccups, detours, and bumps on the way, but I think the direction of travel is clear.

The Kyiv Independent: Some of those bumps on the way will surely be organized by President Putin. For him it's an utmost important cause – he doesn't want Ukraine to be a member of the EU. Do you think he has enough power to not make it happen? And I mean not militarily, but through influence in the EU.

Katarina Mathernova: Ultimately, I don't think so.

The Kyiv Independent: Why not?

Katarina Mathernova: Because Ukraine is determined and knows where it wants to go.

The discussion on expanding the EU has completely shifted. The last decade, since 2013, is the first decade in the history of the European Union when there was no enlargement. The last country to join was Croatia in 2013. So I think that within today's geopolitical environment and today's realities, there is recognition in the EU that the union needs to expand in order to expand the zone of stability, peace and prosperity beyond its current borders.

It's not going to be easy because it's not only Ukraine that needs to do reforms – the EU also needs to reform itself. And this is very important for people in Ukraine to understand. There are legitimate needs of changing the institutional makeup and decision-making process on the EU side. And that's not going to be uncontroversial, that's going to be very difficult.

But as long as we keep our eyes on the goal, I don't think even Mr. Putin could stop that.

The Kyiv Independent: But still, you need unanimous agreement. And Ukraine could complete every step, and someone like Hungary could still block its membership. And Ukraine’s determination can’t really help here.

Katarina Mathernova: Look, we needed unanimity for every sanctions package. How many of them have we had already? Eleven. The EU has a very dynamic way of reaching consensus and we have reached it so far, so I wouldn't see things as black and white.

The Kyiv Independent: You are a new ambassador, having just started in September. Are you going to be the ambassador under whom Ukraine becomes a member of the European Union?

Katarina Mathernova: I certainly hope to be the ambassador under whom Ukraine will advance in its discussions on the EU. I don't want to put a date on it because it is a complex process. I'm from a country that went through the negotiations, and one can’t take shortcuts. But the good thing is that Ukraine now, in the last year, but also throughout the implementation of the association agreement, is already on the way. In other words, you are not starting from scratch, unlike my country and the others that were starting negotiations from scratch in the adoption of the European norms. With your determination, you can go faster, but it's very difficult to set a date. Let's make sure that we have the official beginning of negotiations early next year.

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