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Straight to EU: Ukraine is on a faster track to EU membership than Balkan countries, but it has to rebuild its institutions

The European Union has begun talks on the accession of Albania and Northern Macedonia to the EU. The procedure itself includes such stages as filing an application, obtaining candidate status, negotiations, ratification and integration. These countries received candidate status in 2014 and 2005, respectively. Ukraine passed the first two stages much faster. The EU does not hide the fact that this rapid grant of candidate status is more of a gesture of support for a country that is resisting Russian aggression. Now Ukraine has many political, legal and economic reforms to carry out - and that could take years. So far, corruption, problems with the rule of law, governance and democracy, and an ongoing military crisis have hampered its accession to the EU. However, the gran of candidate status to Ukraine has enable it to rely on loans, science and culture grants, and economic aid.

  • Special conditions at a special time

  • Crucial reforms in Ukraine

  • From negotiation to action

  • Wartime integration

  • Is Ukraine a threat to EU democratic ideals?

  • What will Ukraine get?

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Special conditions at a special time

Until Russia invaded Ukrainian territory, the prospect of Ukraine joining the European Union was very remote. But just days after the war began, in late February, Ukraine applied for EU membership. It then filled out a special questionnaire - a detailed one that gives an idea of the economic, legal and social situation in the applicant country. In early May, Ukraine submitted the completed questionnaire to the European Commission, and in mid-June the Commission recommended that Ukraine be granted candidate status. A week later, on June 23, at a summit in Brussels, the EU leaders unanimously approved that status for Ukraine.

Compared to other countries, Ukraine swiftly passed the initial stage. For example, for Albania, the path to candidacy took 5 years. Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for EU membership in 2016, but have yet to receive candidate status. However, the European leaders clarify that this is the only stage Ukraine was able to pass quickly. The country will now remain in a waiting room for an indefinite period along with Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, which became candidates more than 10 years ago.

Obtaining «candidacy» is the first official step on the long road to EU accession. But it does not guarantee that a country will eventually be admitted to the EU. A country may have that status for an unlimited period of time, and the next stage of negotiations does not start automatically. First, the country will have to bring its legislation and living standards to European standards, and then agree on further steps. For example, Macedonia waited 15 years for the second stage. Turkey is still a long way from accession negotiations: when it applied back in 1987, the country shared European values to a much greater extent than the current increasingly authoritarian regime of Recep Erdogan. Today, the Turkish politicians who launched the process are no longer alive, and the country's European integration is frozen indefinitely.

Crucial reforms in Ukraine

Back in early June Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi stated that almost all major EU countries were against granting Ukraine the status of an accession candidate. It might have seemed like an expression of political will. But in fact Draghi's words mean one thing: Ukraine does not meet the formal requirements - the so-called Copenhagen criteria - without which there can be no next steps. And since the inability to follow bureaucratic procedures freezes the whole process, the European Union (again, for the first time in its history) has accompanied the status award with special conditions.

Ukraine does not meet the formal requirements — the so-called Copenhagen criteria — without which EU accession is impossible

Ukraine set off on its path to the EU back in 2014. It was then that the country signed an association agreement with the EU and, like many others, began to adjust its legislation to European standards. Since then, it has already adopted about 70% of the necessary norms, and recently ratified the Istanbul Convention, an international agreement of the Council of Europe to combat gender and domestic violence.

However, Ukraine is now obliged to undertake a series of heavy structural reforms within a short timeframe. Otherwise, its candidacy will be revoked. The requirements are the same as those that were made before the war: they are mainly aimed at strengthening international control of the Ukrainian legal system and introducing democratic institutions. The first and second requirements concern judicial reform: judges should be elected with the participation of international observers based not only on their professional qualities but also on their impartiality. Ukraine ranks 122nd out of 180 countries in the rating of the world's most corrupt countries, so the third condition is strengthening the fight against corruption, especially at the level of heads of anti-corruption institutions.

Next it should update its anti-money laundering legislation, reform the whole law enforcement system, and pass a law against the oligarchy, which traditionally has had a strong influence on parliament and the media in Ukraine.

Then there is the obligation to adapt the Ukrainian media law to the EU's audiovisual legislation and, finally, to bring the law on minority languages in line with the recommendations of the Venice Commission. It will be difficult for the Ukrainian government, especially in times of war, to fulfill all those requirements, but the last one is probably the hardest. It implies the right of ethnic minorities, including Russians, to freely communicate and receive education in their native language. Such initiatives had not been supported even before the war began.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, emphasizes that all those reforms are necessary for Ukraine itself - its democracy, its economy and its citizens. This is a perfect pretext for modernizing the country, because the Ukrainian government will be under the watchful eye of its own voters and journalists, as well as its Western partners. The list of requirements may eventually be even expanded, but substantive negotiations with the European Union can only begin after Ukraine fulfills all of its obligations. The tentative deadline for this is the end of the year, although it is obvious that a real assessment of Ukraine's progress will only be possible once the war is over. The European Commission has noted that Ukraine is not entitled to any concessions. The country must strictly follow protocol and fully meet all the standard criteria.

From negotiation to action

Having obtained candidate status for the accession to the European Union, a country proceeds to negotiating the so-called roadmaps - an individual program under which it will integrate into the bloc. Only after that comes the time of formal accession negotiations - their start must again be approved by all EU members. The preparatory period usually takes years, and the European Commission has made it clear that Ukraine has a lot of work to do here.

The Roman Empire, whose legal principles were adopted by modern Europe, had little interest in what ethnic groups lived in its provinces, what language they spoke or what religion they practiced. The Romans were concerned with ensuring that the same laws and procedures of Roman law were followed in the colonies as they were in the heart of the empire. The European Union is putting the same principle at the forefront. The EU accession negotiations consist of 35 chapters and thousands of pages of civil, legal, and economic prescriptions which prospective members of the bloc must follow in every aspect of their life. Progress on each chapter must be recognized by all EU leaders. Some of the Balkan countries that started the negotiation process years ago are still stuck on the first chapters.

EU accession negotiations consist of 35 chapters and thousands of pages of civil, legal and economic prescriptions

When all the pieces have been «worked out,» the final vote by EU leaders will take place. If everyone supports the new member's accession, all that remains is signing and ratifying the accession treaty. It can take years. But the timing depends greatly on how quickly and conscientiously the authorities of the candidate country do their «homework.» On average, the process of joining the European Union takes 3 to 14 years. Sweden and Finland were the fastest to travel that path, but many countries require more than eight years. For Croatia, the last country to join the EU, it took 10 years. Ukraine does not expect to join before 2029, but the accession negotiations have been scheduled for 2023. According to European forecasts the entire process may take 15-20 years.

Wartime integration

Ukraine's full integration into the European Union will only be possible after the war is over, particularly because much depends on its outcome. If the war really does drag on for «many years,» the prospect of Ukrainian membership in the EU will be pushed farther and farther away. However, it will not prevent Ukraine from implementing European standards, for example, in the western territories. The June EU vote was historic not only because candidate status was awarded so quickly, but also because it was given to a country embroiled in a full-scale war.

If hostilities drag on for many years, the prospect of Ukraine's membership in the EU will be pushed farther and farther away

Yes, candidate status is the recognition of Ukraine's achievements in democratization of the state and society, which it continues to do even during wartime: despite the chaos of war, the rule of law prevails in the country. But for the EU, it was much more important to express moral and political support for Ukrainians, who «give their lives for European values,» as well as to send a clear signal to Russia.

Is Ukraine a threat to EU democratic ideals?

European politicians do not hide the fact that granting Ukraine candidate status is primarily a political gesture. Ursula von der Leyen, who from the very beginning admitted that this time the EU was ready for «unusual» steps, said that the decision united European countries in the face of Russian imperialism. However, despite the fact that this time the EU has spoken with one voice, doubts about Ukraine's membership in the EU have not disappeared.

European politicians do not hide the fact that granting Ukraine candidate status is primarily a political gesture

Not all European leaders are happy about the prospect of Ukraine's joining the EU. Germany, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and other Western European countries are skeptical. They fear that Kyiv's presence will upset the power balance in the bloc. Ukraine may join the intransigent Visegrad Four (an association of four Central European states: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary - editor's note), which will affect the existing balance of decision-making. It may also prove to be another country to willingly enjoy the benefits of the European market all the while fiddling with the democratic standards of the EU, like Poland or Hungary.

The vice-president of the European Parliament, Katarina Barley, says it is impossible to expel a country from the EU, so there's no hurry to admit it to the bloc:

«We have before us the example of Hungary, which systematically undermines the rule of law.»

At the moment, Ukraine, with its oligarchy, corruption and non-transparent legal system is a threat to the democratic ideals of the EU.

Another problem is Ukraine's unresolved territorial dispute with Russia, as well as the enormous cost of rebuilding Ukraine after the war, which not all European countries are willing to shoulder. And yet, in a situation of systemic confrontation with Russia, the European Union was forced to side with Ukraine, turning a blind eye to its underdeveloped economic and political institutions. «We would not have acted this way under different conditions,» admits French President Emmanuel Macron.

Still, convincing skeptical countries to support Ukraine, at least at this initial stage, proved easy. First of all, it was made clear that there would be no more concessions. To avoid false expectations, the German and French foreign ministers, the Danish prime minister, and other European officials have been open about this. The very demands presented to Ukraine along with the grant of «candidacy» allowed it to get the votes of those EU leaders who are still in doubt. Secondly, the decision is hardly binding upon the EU: it is still not bound by any deadline or a promise to eventually admit the country to the bloc. However, it did manage to send Kyiv a strong «signal of hope» - the candidacy was perceived in Ukraine as an important political victory. The European Commission says that currently all European integration progress fully depends on Ukraine.

What will Ukraine get?

The candidate status means for Ukraine a potential access to multi-billion-euro investments in Europe, and therefore the European Union is trying to improve Ukrainian anticorruption and legal systems. Ukraine's dependence on the collective West has already grown considerably during the war, but European countries will surely take care of further reconstruction of the Ukrainian economy as well. The EU is in a position to support full-scale reforms in the country, integrate it into the single European market, and offer it special privileges as a future potential member of the bloc.

Other candidate countries received individually coordinated and specifically targeted assistance from the EU: long-term loans, grants in the sphere of science and culture, and support for certain economy sectors. Besides, the European Union has a special assistance program, IPA, which all candidate countries use to finance democratization of institutions, development of rural areas, transport and environmental reforms, and humanitarian aid. In addition, Ukraine can rely on the EU's temporary abolition of customs duties remaining in force.

In the long term, the EU is ready to offer Ukraine gradual economic and political stabilization, but investments are unlikely to bear fruit until the war is over. For now, the EU candidate status at least strengthens Ukraine's position in peace talks with Russia.

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