Ukraine’s EU accession path and potential hurdles — expert interview

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen announces the recommendation to start negotiations with Ukraine, Brussels, November 8, 2023
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen announces the recommendation to start negotiations with Ukraine, Brussels, November 8, 2023

Ruslan Osypenko, a Ukrainian diplomat and foreign relations expert, explained in an interview with NV Radio on Nov. 10 how EU’s accession negotiations with Ukraine will begin and what risks may arise along the way.

NV: Let’s start with four new, or rather not new, but additional tasks that Ukraine must fulfill. We knew about them in the summer, particularly about the increase in the number of NABU [National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine] staff by 300 detectives. How complicated will it be to complete?

Osypenko: The time is over when we can hesitate or not do something. We submitted a serious application and received a response from the European Commission that we’re almost ready. That is, the European Commission took responsibility before the European Council and the European Parliament that Ukraine is 90% ready. That is, there is no way back and we should only move forward.

And everything will depend on many factors, the realization by our political elite that joining the European Union is vital for us. If we haven’t received an invitation to negotiations and joining NATO, the actualization of joining the European Union doubles. Because this also partially solves the security issue, I’m not talking about the rest. Therefore, such an issue as increasing the NABU staff should already be considered as a technical issue that simply needs to be resolved.

NV: And if we compare with other countries that have already acquired the candidate status, then entered the stage of official membership negotiations, and then became full EU members. Is it possible to compare accession timeframes, or are such comparisons make little sense for a country at war?

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Osypenko: I think the most important thing is that a strategic decision has been made that the European Union should expand. Secondly, it must be transformed, i.e., internal rules must be changed, and in general EU reforms must be completed, which haven’t been completed, e.g., in the field of security. Because this union hasn’t been formalized to the end. If we talk about terms, everyone will have their own, because each country will move in the negotiation process, and these negotiations won’t end until they close the 35 chapters on negotiations in compliance with EU [legislation]. It’s a long time, an extremely long time.

If we can say so, when entering negotiations, we’ll now be very transparent to our European partners, and at the same time they’ll be ready to help us so that we get closer in all areas, such as legal, financial, economic, and trade, to EU norms and standards.

NV: If the European Council votes on accession talks, it may happen on Dec. 15. And then a certain framework for negotiations, a document that defines the content of these negotiations, will be put forward. The framework itself, how large is this document? You already said about dozens of chapters on which the negotiation process will take place, how long can it last?

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Osypenko: The framework is a technical point of formalization and negotiation. It defines the principles that will regulate the negotiations, the essence of the negotiations and the order in which we’ll conduct them. This is what is called a framework, these three major directions. When these directions are drawn up and officially released, only then we’ll officially enter the negotiation process.

To begin the negotiation process, the European Commission still has a long way to go with us in drawing up a negotiating framework, how we’ll do it and what we’ll talk about. When they make it official, we’re officially in negotiations. After that, we may continue making progress every year and get closer to EU norms and standards, common standards in one or another area.

NV: In this very framework, do I understand correctly that if it’s written there to do such a thing, and if it’s done, no EU member country can say “no, I don’t want to adopt it, because I just don’t want to”?

Hungary has already promised to block us from starting negotiations because, as their foreign minister said, it “would bring war to Europe.” What do you think about this, does this framework protect against such purely political decisions.

Osypenko: No, it doesn’t protect, and, by the way, a country can stop the process at every stage. If you’re asking if someone is going to put a spoke in our wheel, I think there might be such options. Because even if everyone now votes unanimously and doesn’t put a spoke in our wheel at this pre-negotiation stage, because the European Council is unanimous, their rules haven’t changed, they have no qualified majority, and everything is accepted by consensus. There must be a consensus at the European Council that the country meets the initial criteria and can enter the negotiation process. They can stop us at this stage.

Then, we went through difficult negotiations, spent years, improved our legislation, and made many reforms. And after the end of these negotiations, the candidate must officially apply for accession. And then, based on a positive assessment by the European Commission, the European Council recommends, but all members must also positively respond that they’re ready for Ukraine, which has already gone through the negotiation process, to join. It will already be a matter of signing the agreement. We can even sign an agreement with the European Commission, but it still needs to be ratified by every EU government and parliament.

And the very same Hungary can say no, even the head of Hungary will say: no, the Hungarian parliament won’t ratify it. And that’s it, we don’t acquire full-fledged full membership, we remain a country in limbo, we haven’t acquired full membership. Because one of the countries said that its parliament wouldn’t ratify, and the agreement wouldn’t enter into force. Many such legal moments and cases may take place. And if they [EU member states] wish, this process can always be halted.

NV: You’ve already said that only a consensus decision has left in the European Union yet, but not a qualified majority. How likely is it that this rule can be changed in the European Union itself? Because this possible change has been discussed for some time, but as far as I understand they should vote by consensus again to change it, and here we’re at a dead end.

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Osypenko: Exactly. And I see that, according to open sources, I analyze the information that appears, the European Union has started this movement. First, they understood that the European Union isn’t effective in the new geopolitical conditions that have changed, these geopolitical conditions are changing so quickly that the under-reformed European Union with its rules cannot keep up with these changes. Germany turned out to be proactive in this regard, remember, our Foreign Minister [Dmytro] Kuleba was also there in early November.

Germany gathered all the heads of European think tanks and EU foreign ministers to hold discussions. Theoretically, they had such a think tank, a platform where they discussed how to proceed: first expand, and then change the rules, or not change the rules, and then expand [the European Union]. Or conduct these processes in parallel, change the rules and accept new candidates. This is the kind of discussion started in the European Union. That is, they realize that it’s necessary to expand and change the rules since the global geopolitical situation has changed.

NV: And as far as I know, at least the Polish authorities aren’t very happy with this idea of replacing the consensus with a qualified majority, because they believe that in this way the countries of the so-called “old Europe” (primarily Germany, France and the Netherlands) would divide the EU members into two classes and allegedly manage everything themselves.

And then the importance of Poland’s voice will decrease and it’s unlikely to agree to this. I already see potential problems with the same in Hungary, most likely in Slovakia. How long can it last and is there any chance that such a decision will be voted on?

Osypenko: Talks are underway between the lines in the European Union about a “two-tiered”: there is Europe’s core, what you said, the countries of Western Europe, which are locomotives. And the new candidates and members who joined recently, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, are in the second tier, let’s say. But Western Europe also has fears that if new candidates join and, for example, Poland unites with Ukraine in the European Parliament, they will be locomotives and will determine the bloc’s policy.

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They would get most of the seats because both countries are large. And financial accents may shift to Central and Eastern Europe, and political accents, and their voice will sound louder. That’s why both Europe of the first tier and Europe of the tier speed have reservations. But they must understand that EU inclusion of Ukraine will, first of all, add impetus to reforms, accelerate them in the European Union, and make it stronger.

Now the European Union seems to have woken up and is looking at what is happening around in another way. And they understand that it’s necessary to change, to expand, because such a window of opportunity amid geopolitical turbulence will eventually close, and then these gray areas on unprotected borders, when they don’t have border troops and a common military, will pose greater risks than previously thought.

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