Ukraine gets European Commission backing for talks on Ukraine membership

The Head of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen (L) and President Of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyi (R) during meeting with Ukrainian railway workers on November 4, 2023 in Kyiv
Image caption,European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen visited Ukraine’s President Zelensky in Kyiv last week

By Sofia Bettiza

BBC News, Brussels

The European Commission has recommended that formal talks should begin with Ukraine on joining the European Union.

The step takes Kyiv closer to the coveted prize of EU membership, five months after the 27 member states gave it candidate status.

Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen praised its “excellent progress, even as it’s fighting an existential war.”

She said talks should also start with Moldova and that Georgia should become a candidate, if it passed reforms.

Moldova and Ukraine applied for membership in the weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine and both became candidates in June. Georgia was passed over for candidate status at the time.

President Volodymyr Zelensky described the European Commission report as “historic” and said it was an important day.

Ms von der Leyen said Ukraine had completed “well over 90% of the necessary reforms” that the EU set out last year, adding that “the goal is truly within reach”.

It was also a day to celebrate in Georgia, she said. The government in Tbilisi is seen as having made sufficient progress on gender equality, fighting violence against women and organised crime.

A final decision on the recommendations will be made by the EU’s member states at their December summit.

But the devil to reaching the goal of membership is in the detail.

EU accession talks are a slalom of technicalities and caveats and they tend to be painstakingly slow. Candidate countries need to meet extensive legal and economic criteria to join.

Attendees extend a Georgian flag and a EU flag in Tbilisi during a rally gathering tens of thousands of attendees in support of Georgia's candidacy for European Union membership, on June 24, 2022
Image caption,Most Georgians support joining the EU but their government is seen as increasingly pro-Russian

“Just because you are granted candidate status, it doesn’t mean you will join the EU tomorrow,” said an EU diplomat.

The entire process normally takes about a decade, but can take longer than that.

“The Western Balkans are the best example of how slow, tricky and inefficient the process can be,” said Tina Akhvlediani of the Centre for European Policy Studies.

Each enlargement decision requires the backing of all 27 EU members, and any country can block negotiations at any stage, often due to bilateral disputes.

“It can be because of ethnic identities, cultural differences, even the name of the country. Greece demanded that Macedonia change its name to North Macedonia,” said Ms Akhvlediani.

The European Commission report, released on Wednesday, however recommends that Ukraine needs to:

  • further reform the way constitutional judges are selected
  • introduce tougher action against corruption and money laundering
  • and adopt new laws to curb the influence of the country’s powerful businessmen, known as oligarchs.

“Ukraine has had massive issues with corruption, and it needs to do more to carry out judicial reform – which is relatively fundamental stuff,” said Tina Akhvlediani.

But there is a certain leniency, considering that Ukraine is in the middle of a war.

“In spite of the invasion, they have come a long way and tried their very best to reform. It’s really impressive,” Michael Gahler, a German MEP from the Christian Democrats, told the BBC.

Unlike Nato, which Ukraine is also seeking to join, the European Union has no collective defence pact. But Mr Gahler says Ukraine joining the EU would ensure that Russia does not make a further attempt to take over the country.

“We need to make it very clear that Ukraine belongs in Europe,” said Mr Gahler. “It is not in the Russian orbit, it is firmly anchored in the West. And for that to happen, we need to start accession negotiations.”

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola (C) address to the people as Moldova's President Maia Sandu (C,R) listens on, during a pro-EU rally in Chisinau on May 21, 2023. Met
Image caption,Moldovan President Maia Sandu (R) said Wednesday was an important day for the future of Moldova (file pic)

But ultimately the EU is facing a dilemma. It is torn between the signal of solidarity it wants to send to Ukrainians, and the difficulty of integrating such a large and war-torn country.

Ukraine is the most heavily mined country in the world, it is awash with weapons, and latest estimates suggest that around 18% of its territory is controlled by Russia.

“EU leaders understand the urgency of anchoring Ukraine firmly in the West, but they are also aware that the country’s security situation would pose greater challenges than any previous EU enlargement,” said Stefan Lehne from the Carnegie Europe think tank.

“The EU will have genuine problems in integrating a country that is so big and so different from the present members.”

President Zelensky has promised that Kyiv will meet the Commission’s conditions, and stressed how a positive EU decision will give fresh motivation to his troops.

That is particularly relevant amid fears of “Ukraine fatigue” mounting among Western allies. He has spoken himself of the Israel-Hamas war “taking away the focus” from the war in Ukraine.

No EU member state is ready to admit Ukraine while it is at war, but the geopolitical urgency is there, says Tina Akhvlediani from the Centre for European Policy Studies.

“If Ukraine doesn’t join the EU, then the country will be lost to Russia. It’s autocracy versus democracy. We can’t just watch while Russia invades other countries that have European aspirations.”

But enlargement has never come about smoothly for the European Union. It is quite normal for the European Commission, which runs the process, to take a positive approach toward future accessions, while national governments are often divided.

In Brussels, Hungary is seen as the main hurdle that could scupper Ukraine’s ambitions.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban was recently photographed shaking hands with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and he has been critical of sending more military support to Ukraine.

In the early days of the EU, enlargement was driven by the need to consolidate Western Europe during the Cold War – and later by the necessity of stabilising the parts of the former Soviet empire that had become independent.

The renewed Russian threat has revived interest in bringing in Western Balkan and Eastern European countries.

“European countries understand that we are in systemic conflict with an aggressive Russia,” says German Michael Gahler. “The rest of the world is watching how Europe deals with it. If we backtrack on Ukraine, that would be disastrous. We would be seen as unreliable partners for the rest of the world.”

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