Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal has a tight two-year timetable for securing EU membership that is bound to dominate discussions at this week’s historic EU-Ukraine summit, the first to take place on Ukrainian soil.
The problem? No one within the EU thinks this is realistic.
When EU commissioners travel to Kyiv later this week ahead of Friday’s summit with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the heads of the European Commission and Council, their main task is likely to involve managing expectations.
Shmyhal himself is imposing a tough deadline. “We have a very ambitious plan to join the European Union within the next two years,” he told POLITICO. “So we expect that this year, in 2023, we can already have this pre-entry stage of negotiations,” he said.
This throws down a gauntlet to the EU establishment, which is trying to keep Ukrainian membership as a far more remote concept.
French President Emmanuel Macron said last year it could be “decades” before Ukraine joins. Even EU leaders, who backed granting Ukraine candidate status at their summit last June, privately admit that the prospect of the country actually joining is quite some years away (and may be one reason they backed the idea in the first place.) After all, candidate countries like Serbia, Turkey and Montenegro have been waiting for many years, since 1999 in Ankara’s case.
Ukraine is a conundrum for the EU. Many argue that Brussels has a particular responsibility to Kyiv. It was, after all, Ukrainians’ fury at the decision of President Viktor Yanukovych to pull out of a political and economic association agreement with the EU at Russia’s behest that triggered the Maidan uprising of 2014 and set the stage for war. As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen put it: Ukraine is “the only country where people got shot because they wrapped themselves in a European flag.”
Ukraine’s close allies in the EU such as Poland and the Baltic countries strongly support Kyiv’s membership push, seeing it as a democracy resisting an aggressor. Many of the EU old guard are far more wary, however, as Ukraine — a global agricultural superpower — could dilute their own powers and perks. Ukraine and Poland — with a combined population of 80 million — could team up to rival Germany as a political force in the European Council and some argue Kyiv would be an excessive drain on the EU budget.
Friday’s summit in Kyiv — the first EU meeting of its kind to take place in an active war zone — will be about striking the right balance.
Though EU national leaders will not be in attendance, European Council officials have been busy liaising with EU member states about the final communiqué.
Some countries are insisting the statement should not stray far from the language used at the June European Council — emphasizing that while the future of Ukraine lies within the European Union, aspirant countries need to meet specific criteria. “Expectation is quite high in Kyiv, but there is a need to fulfill all the conditions that the Commission has set out. It’s a merit-based process,” said one senior EU official.
Still, progress is expected when Zelenskyy meets with von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel.
Shmyhal told POLITICO he hopes Ukraine can achieve a “substantial leap forward” on Friday, particularly in specific areas — an agreement on a visa-free regime for industrial goods; the suspension of customs duties on Ukrainian exports for another year; and “active progress” on joining the SEPA (Single Euro Payments Area) payments scheme and the inclusion of Ukraine into the EU’s mobile roaming area.
“We expect progress and acceleration on our path towards signing these agreements,” he said.
The hot topic — and one of the central question marks over Ukraine’s EU accession — will be Ukraine’s struggle against corruption. The deputy infrastructure minister was fired and deputy foreign minister stepped down this month over scandals related to war profiteering in public contracts.
“We need a reformed Ukraine,” said one senior EU official centrally involved in preparations for the summit. “We cannot have the same Ukraine as before the war.”
Shmyhal insisted that the Zelenskyy government is taking corruption seriously. “We have a zero-tolerance approach to corruption,” he said, pointing to the “lightning speed” with which officials were removed this month. “Unfortunately, corruption was not born yesterday, but we are certain that we will uproot corruption,” he said, openly saying that it’s key to the country’s EU accession path.
He also said the government was poised to revise its recent legislation on the country’s Constitutional Court to meet the demands of both the European Commission and the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe. Changes could come as early as this week, ahead of the summit, Shmyhal said.
Though Ukraine has announced a reform of the Constitutional Court, particularly on how judges are appointed, the Venice Commission still has concerns about the powers and composition of the advisory group of experts, the body which selects candidates for the court. The goal is to avoid political interference.
Shmyhal said these questions will be addressed. “We are holding consultations with the European Commission to see that all issued conclusions may be incorporated into the text,” he told POLITICO.
Nonetheless, the symbolic power of this week’s summit is expected to send a strong message to Moscow about Ukraine’s European aspirations.
European Council President Michel used his surprise visit to Kyiv this month to reassure Ukraine that EU membership will be a reality for Ukraine, telling the Ukrainian Rada (parliament) that he dreams that one day a Ukrainian will hold his job as president of the European Council.
“Ukraine is the EU and the EU is Ukraine,” he said. “We must spare no effort to turn this promise into reality as fast as we can.”
The key question for Ukrainians after Friday’s meeting will be how fast the rhetoric and promises can become a reality.