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Ukraine’s path to EU accession paved with reforms

The Berlaymont, the EU Commission headquarter is lighted in Blue and Yellow, the colors of the Ukrainan Flag in Brussels, Belgium on May 8, 2022. (Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)
by Alexander Query February 2, 2024 10:25 PM 9 min read
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When European leaders agreed to Ukraine’s accession talks in December 2023, the historic move was hailed in Kyiv as a recognition of years of struggle to get closer to the bloc since the EuroMaidan Revolution.

The agreement came after a European Commission decision in November 2023 recommending talks begin following Ukraine’s completion of four out of seven steps laid out when the country received candidate status in June 2023.

Accession won’t happen overnight. Ukraine needs to enact a thorough overhaul of its legislation, policies, and economy as it heads down the long and winding road toward EU membership.

Aligning with EU legislation has the potential to boost much-needed reforms in Ukraine, experts told the Kyiv Independent, but it will take years to implement all of the necessary legislation. Some experts say it could take up to ten years until Ukraine formally joins.

Protesters fighting government forces at barricades on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) on Feb. 19, 2014 in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Serhii Mykhalchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

Ukraine managed to finalize the pre-conditions for enlargement talks, but it still has a lot to do to fully implement the rule of law, separation of power, and the fight against corruption, Manfred Weber, EU lawmaker and the head of the European People's Party, told the Kyiv Independent on Jan. 24.

“We want to give a clear indication that Ukraine can join, but Europe is looking at all the details, and the process will be an intensive one for all the participants,” Weber said.

The appetite for EU integration among Ukrainians and the conditionalities that are connected to EU integration is exactly what Ukraine needs to push for reforms, Mykhailo Zhernakov, the head of the board of judicial NGO De Jure, told the Kyiv Independent.

“If we only wait for Ukraine to miraculously reform itself and not give any incentive for the government to move forward, I don't know if it will ever happen,” he said.

Much-needed requirements

After Ukraine received candidate status in June 2023, the country started on a reform path in hopes of opening negotiations to join the bloc. The EU provided Ukraine with a list of seven recommendations the country needed to address to have a chance at starting talks.

The negotiations for membership accession that started after being granted candidate status put Ukraine on the right path to reform, Zhernakov said.

“They’re called negotiations but it’s actually about Ukraine making reforms that are necessary,” he said.

The four steps that Ukraine completed by November last year included reforms that touched upon the judiciary, anti-corruption, the fight against money laundering, reducing the powers of oligarchs, amendments to media legislation to avoid vested interests, and amendments to legislation on national minorities to preserve their fundamental rights.

The judiciary reforms Ukraine completed included rebooting the Constitutional Court, the High Council of Justice, and the High Qualification Commission of Judges of Ukraine.

These reforms seek to ensure the rule of law is respected in key judicial institutions and that judges are qualified and independent from political influence that could lead them to tweak verdicts.

EU recommendations from November 2023 also included tackling corruption in the Supreme Court. A recent corruption scandal involving Vsevolod Kniazev, the ex-chief of the Supreme Court arrested on corruption charges, highlighted the need for reform.

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Kniazev was detained and dismissed from his position in May 2023 after he was charged with accepting a $2.7 million bribe to rule in favor of Ukrainian billionaire Kostyantyn Zhevago. A bail to release him was paid on Jan. 31. As he was not formally suspended, he is allowed to return to work as an ordinary judge at the court.

The EU’s pressure to address such issues is a great opportunity to renew the system and tackle corruption in the Supreme Court, Zhernakov said.

"We have to get rid of old corrupt judges that are still in the Supreme Court and fill it with new trustworthy ones,” Zhernakov said, referring to Kniazev’s case.

Reforming the judicial system is a key point upon entering the EU, political scientist Christian Lequesne told the Kyiv Independent.

“If economic crimes go unpunished because it's possible to set up a deal with justice, there’s no real rule of law,” he said.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin meets with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on the sidelines of the Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on Oct. 17, 2023. (Grigory Sysoyev /POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Ukraine also fulfilled three of four additional recommendations presented by the European Commission in November 2023, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on Jan. 19.

Those included increasing the staff of the NABU, one of the country's chief anti-corruption agencies, reopening the assets declaration registry, and implementing changes to national minorities law, a contentious point between Ukraine and Hungary.

Hungary has repeatedly said Ukraine was not ready for EU membership, reiterating its concerns over a national minorities law that the country claims infringes upon the rights of Hungarian speakers in western Ukraine.

Russia has repeatedly justified its aggression against Ukraine under the unsubstantiated pretext of protecting Russian speakers in the country.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was recently the only European leader to attend a forum in Beijing, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Adapting the law

While Ukraine has fulfilled most of the first outlined requirements the EU demands for its integration, the hardest is ahead, with a full-on legislation screening awaiting Ukraine.

Ukraine will have to harmonize its legislation with 35 different areas of European Union law. The work has only just begun, according to experts.

Around 2,800 EU legal acts need to be implemented as part of the admission process, according to Shmyhal.

The screening is the first step toward Ukraine's accession talks with the EU. The European Commission has already started assessing Ukrainian legislation for compliance with EU laws, which "lays the groundwork for the (membership) negotiations," President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Jan. 25.

EU requirements are “tremendously helpful,” Zhernakov said, adding that “95% of what Ukraine has achieved in the last ten years would not be possible without international involvement and strict conditionalities because there's still a lot of vested interests in the country.”

Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration Olha Stefanishyna said last November that it would be “realistic to complete the process” of joining the European Union in two years.

But according to Lequesne, it takes at least ten years for countries that are not subjected to an open conflict to enter the bloc. Russia’s ongoing war against the country also complicates accession as under EU law members have an obligation to provide aid and assistance “by all the means in their power” if any member country is attacked.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (L) pose for a photo with Ukrainian and European Union flags after a meeting in Kyiv on Feb. 2, 2023. (Ukrainian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A report by the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies also said that “based on the pace of reforms of previous joiners, Ukraine will be institutionally ready for EU accession in about ten years.”

Yet, the institute said that Ukraine’s strong civil society, the desire for EU integration, international donors’ involvement, and the fight against corruption could boost the speed of reforms.

Ukraine also needs to adapt its economy and, as a massive agricultural powerhouse, fit into a single market spooked by the low prices of its products.

The country will need to meet the Copenhagen Criteria for accession, meaning having a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the bloc.

Orban effect

Kyiv will undergo much more scrutiny than the previous wave of enlargement in 2004 that included Hungary, according to political scientist Ramona Coman.

Orban has repeatedly called Ukraine “one of the most corrupt countries in the world” without evidence, parroting the pro-Russian narrative depicting Ukraine as a failed state and using it as one of the reasons to oppose its accession.

“Today, (Orban) says Ukraine is corrupt, but the 15 state members at the time didn't use these arguments,” she said.

When Hungary entered the EU in 2004, anticorruption measures had yet to yield tangible results, according to a report by U.S.-based NGO Freedom House.

In 2003, Hungary experienced its largest banking and money-laundering scandal when it was discovered that Attila Kulcsar, a former broker at the country’s second-biggest bank, K&H Bank, had embezzled about $50 million and, according to testimony, routinely paid off political functionaries, often $100,000 or more, especially those in the ruling left-wing party.

Meanwhile, the Roma community was still facing high levels of discrimination, according to a U.S. Department of State report published in 2003.

Discrimination of the Roma didn’t stop Hungary from joining the bloc, while Orban routinely uses the debunked argument that the Hungarian minority in Ukraine faces persecution as an argument for why Kyiv isn't ready to enter the EU.

Hungary still today has the worst public sector corruption record in the EU, according to Transparency International’s January report.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives at the European Council summit in Brussels on Dec. 14, 2023. (Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Lequesne isn’t sure Ukraine will be treated any differently than others when they entered the union, saying that the perception of unfairly harsh or ambitious requirements for entry is a common phenomenon among new members.

“Every time there's an enlargement, we have the feeling that the one before was treated better,” he said.

Still, Ukraine is paying the price of an “Orban effect,” Lequesne said, referring to Hungary’s democratic backsliding and Orban’s constant obstruction of EU policies.

Hungary entered the bloc in 2004 with fewer safeguards and requirements than Ukraine, and since Orban took office for the second time in 2010, he went head-on against Brussels.

In 2011, Orban passed a new constitution, eliminating the system of checks and balances by curbing the powers of the top court in budget and tax matters, as well as allowing the president to dissolve parliament if a budget is not approved.

The new constitution allowed Orban’s party Fidesz appointees to control key public institutions such as the budget supervisory Fiscal Council.

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Such democratic backsliding served as a cautionary tale for EU institutions, who introduced more safeguards for new members to try and avoid having a second Orban in the bloc.

Orban’s attitude also pushed the EU to introduce a change of method in enlargement in 2019, making it possible to backtrack on negotiations and cut off funds if needed, a threat allegedly pushed by the EU to force Hungary at the negotiating table to unlock 50 million euros for Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Hungary and Poland are among the ones that benefit the most from the EU budget, Lequesne said, and they fear the entry of Western Balkan countries or Ukraine would mean less funds for them.

Orban also reportedly said in a meeting with Hungarian lawmakers in March 2023 that he feared Ukraine's accession would create a new "center of power" in the EU, dominated by the U.S. that would include the Baltic states, Poland, and, to a lesser extent, Romania, according to Hungarian investigative media Direkt36.

The Hungarian leader is the biggest enemies of newcomers in the bloc because his policies bring harsher requirements, Lequesne said.

In the meantime, new enlargement means new, much-needed reforms in the EU, too, he said.

“The EU also needs reforms, and Ukraine will boost them,” Lequesne said.

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