Brussels to accelerate Ukraine’s economic integration but fast-track EU membership meets resistance

Volodymyr Zelenskiy has vowed to push ahead with reforms to meet European standards on the eve of a major summit, but some member states are cool on Kyiv’s full accession

Ukraine war
Volodymyr Zelenskiy with Austrian President Alexander van der Bellen in Kyiv on Wednesday ahead of an EU-Ukraine summit.Efrem Lukatsky (AP)
María R. Sahuquillo

The European Union is planning to accelerate the accession of Ukraine into the economy of the bloc. Brussels is preparing a series of economic and energy agreements with Kyiv as a preliminary step to Ukraine’s future entry into the common market, when the country’s integration into the EU materializes. These pacts, which will act as a formula to strengthen Ukraine’s links with its European neighbors, are included in a draft declaration, to which EL PAÍS has had access, that will be presented at a symbolic summit between the EU and Ukraine at the end of this week in Kyiv. The meeting will take place on Friday, as confirmed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, preceded by other high-level meetings between EU and Ukrainian representatives.

The meeting is the first summit to be held between the EU and Kyiv on Ukrainian soil since Russia launched a full-scale invasion almost a year ago, and represents an important gesture of support for the Zelenskiy’s government with the war still raging on the eastern fronts. At the same time, the economic and industrial structure being offered to Kyiv is a more tangible horizon than fast-tracked EU membership, which remains politically complicated and faces opposition from some member states, who have advised against providing too much hope of that eventuality coming to pass. Meanwhile, on the eve of the symbolic meeting and aware that all eyes are now on Kyiv, Zelenskiy pledged to speed up reforms, particularly in anti-corruption matters, to meet European standards.

The EU and the European Commission have promised to continue providing support to Ukraine for as long as necessary and with all the measures at their disposal, a message that will be underscored at the Kyiv summit. The EU has so far refused to dampen Ukraine’s hopes of early entry into the bloc and while the European institutions have welcomed “efforts” to adhere to European guidelines in the summit declaration, they have reminded Kyiv of the need for further reforms in the fields of justice, tackling corruption and respect for the rights of ethnic minorities residing in the country. The underlying message is that focus should not be concentrated on a possible date for EU integration, but rather on the path to achieve it.

Ukraine as an unofficial 28th EU state

Brussels is drawing up a series of economic and industrial pacts help keep the Ukrainian economy afloat and strengthen its ties with the EU, according to the draft declaration of the Ukraine summit. Kyiv already receives gas from Europe and at the outset of the war it synchronized its electricity grid with Europe, as did Moldova. The next step is to broaden its integration in terms of power supply, telecommunications – via roaming agreements – and industrial matters. Ukraine could therefore become a de facto 28th member without officially joining the EU.

The union has pledged, for example, to “accelerate” work to facilitate the entry of Ukrainian industrial products into the common market. It is also expected there will be an announcement on a “strategic partnership for energy from renewable sources,” such as hydrogen. In addition, the EU has emphasized that all reconstruction aid to Ukraine is aimed at adapting it to the EU economy, as stated in the draft joint declaration, which is still subject to change and lacks the final approval of Kyiv, which could yet press for clearer language regarding its membership. Ukraine wants not only tangible commitments, but also symbolic ones: “We need decisions,” Zelenskiy said during his daily address on Monday.

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said recently that Ukraine hopes to meet all the requirements for EU accession by 2026. However, the prospect of integration in such a short timeframe has divided the 27-member bloc. Ukraine achieved EU candidate status in just three months, while for other countries the process took years and, in many cases, they are still waiting for membership to crystallize. Some comments from the European Commission, chaired by Ursula von der Leyen and one of the most vocal European supporters of Ukraine, and the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, who has also been firm in his commitment to Kyiv, on the country’s progress have shocked nations such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, which argue that accession, in realistic terms, is “light years away,” in the words of one European diplomat.

Last May, before Kyiv submitted its request for membership, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested the process could take decades. There are concerns about how to absorb a largely agricultural country of almost 44 million inhabitants before the Russian invasion, and which has suffered a significant industrial decline due to the war. As Zelenskiy’s government itself has acknowledged, corruption remains a significant issue.

Last week, the Zelenskiy carried out a major purge of several institutions – including the army – due to several corruption scandals and on Wednesday he dismissed another battery of high-ranking officials over suspicions of corruption in such EU-sensitive areas as taxation and customs. The Ukrainian president won the 2019 elections with a campaign focused on tackling this endemic problem in a country that does however, unlike many of its neighbors, possess powerful structures and civil organizations that audit and denounce corrupt practices. In his Tuesday address, Zelenskiy said the war will not hinder the pursuit of reforms to “change the social, legal and political reality in many ways, making it more human, transparent and effective.”

The more pragmatic member states have urged heeding the lessons of recent integrations, such as those of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 – both of whom have been subject to European audit for decades – or Hungary, which joined the EU in 2004 but where serious breaches of the rule of law and corruption are also still a problem. “Ukraine would not have been named a candidate if it were not for the war, but the Russian invasion and the importance of supporting it have changed everything,” said a senior European diplomatic source. “Speeding up the process too much will not benefit Kyiv in any case. We all stand to gain if things are done in good time and according to the rules,” added another diplomat.

On the other side of the coin, countries such as Poland and the Baltic States are calling for greater recognition of Ukraine’s progress in official EU declarations and for further steps to be taken not only symbolically, but also practically, towards its integration. As an EU candidate, Ukraine has to meet a series of political criteria – stability of institutions and guarantees of democracy, rule of law and human rights – as well as economic criteria including a functional and competitive market.

The European Commission is due to carry out an initial review of compliance with the accession requirements in spring or early summer, but while the draft summit statement speaks of “progress” in “extremely difficult times,” it also reminds Kyiv of the importance of speeding up judicial reforms, including that of the Constitutional Court. At normal speed, accession could take years; but the Ukrainian candidacy is unique, with Russian aggression at the EU’s doorstep. It is no longer a question of whether Ukraine will join the club, but when.

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