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Ukraine’s path to EU membership: Tackling corruption, an independent judiciary and reining in the oligarchs

President of the European Council Charles Michel has set a deadline of 2030 for the expansion of the Union. Kyiv currently meets only two of the seven requirements to start accession negotiations

Ukraine War
Yevhen Borisov, head of the Odesa military recruitment office, at a trial in Kyiv on July 25.Global Images Ukraine (Global Images Ukraine via Getty )

The flag of the European Union flies over many buildings in free Ukraine: town halls, schools, and businesses. It was also raised in the center of Kherson in November 2022, when Ukrainian forces liberated the city from its Russian occupiers. The blue standard and 12 gold stars that represent the EU are symbolic of a better future for the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians, polls reiterate. Charles Michel has set a date for what has long been a dream to become reality, in his words: 2030 is the deadline the president of the European Council has earmarked for tackling the oft-announced enlargement of the EU.

That gives Ukraine seven years to carry out the profound reforms that should guarantee it access to the union. However, doing so presents a colossal challenge for a country in the middle of the bloodiest full-scale war in decades, with about 20% of its territory in the hands of the Russian Army and Kyiv dependent on international aid. The European Commission puts the figure that the EU and its member states have provided to Ukraine at €65 billion ($70 billion). The United States alone has approved a series of aid packages valued at $112 billion. But the Russian invasion also hastened the EU’s recognition of Ukraine as a candidate for membership in June 2022, a goal the country has demanded at various times over the three decades since its independence.

The European Commission set out seven points that Ukraine must meet in order to start accession negotiations. Kyiv’s goal was to meet these requirements by 2023, but Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration Olga Stefanishina admitted on August 17 that they would not succeed. Ukrainian Prime Minister Denis Shmihal said in January that he aspired to gain EU membership in two years, but the reality is more complex: on June 22, the European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, warned that Ukraine had only fulfilled two of the seven requirements for negotiations to begin.

These two points are linked to legal reforms promoted by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. On the one hand, Várhelyi remarked that the new law regulating the media market complies with EU standards, especially the obligation for media companies to declare who their owners are in order to reduce the power of the oligarchs.

Brussels welcomed the law, but organizations defending the right to freedom of information have criticized it. The International Federation of Journalists, the European Federation of Journalists and the Independent Media Trade Union of Ukraine have warned that the law hands significant power to the sector’s regulatory body — which depends on the government — to close media outlets that endanger state security, among other conditions to be assessed by this body. Media outlets critical of Zelenskiy, such as Pravda, have also pointed out that private television groups close to the presidency are receiving favored treatment.

The European Commission is also satisfied with the reform of the High Council of Justice of Ukraine, which gives it more independence, and of the Selection Commission for the High Qualification Commission of Judges, “which is working on a merit-based selection system.” Várhely also acknowledged there has been progress in introducing rules to ensure the independence of the Constitutional Court.

But the road to consolidating a separation of powers and a fully democratic judiciary is cumbersome, as evidenced by the long time it took Zelenskiy — over two years — to appoint an anti-corruption prosecutor in 2022, or the arrest last May of the president of the Supreme Court, Vsevolod Knyazev, on accusations of receiving a bribe of €2.5 million to hand down a sentence in favor of the oligarch Kostyantyn Zhevago.

Wartime corruption as treason

The fight against corruption is one of the points that the Commission highlights where Ukraine still has a lot of room for improvement. Cases are occurring on a monthly basis. In August, Zelenskiy relieved all the heads of the provincial military recruitment offices in the face of accumulating evidence of fraudulent recruitment procedures. The president announced Sunday in a televised interview that he would propose to the Rada — the Ukrainian parliament — that it pass a law equating wartime corruption with treason.

Other demands on which Ukraine needs to make progress are money laundering and reform of the oligarchs’ system of power. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a legal and political power vacuum occurred in which major public industrial assets passed into the hands of a few businessmen. These individuals continue to have a decisive influence on the development of Ukrainian business and political life. In an interview Monday with EL PAÍS, Mark Savchuk, an advisor to the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, warned that despite evident improvements since 2014, the level of corruption remains very high and the country is a long way from meeting EU standards.

One of the most sensitive points that Brussels demands of Kyiv — and where it perceives the least progress — is in respect for ethnic minorities and above all, the use of their languages. These minorities include, among others, the Hungarian groups in the Transcarpathian region, Romani, Jews, Romanians, and Tatars, as well as the country’s Belarusian population and those who speak Russian, a language which, despite its widespread use, is not recognized as an official one in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion has further complicated the situation.

Michel said in his speech Monday that the most difficult thing about EU enlargement is for citizens to feel the Union “in their hearts.” In Ukraine, this is a major challenge. In a report published last February by EL PAÍS, leading Ukrainian experts stressed that the country’s Soviet past and decades of unsuccessful negotiations for Kyiv to become closer to Brussels have left the majority of the population feeling far from European. Another major obstacle will be, as Michel has indicated, that EU membership of candidates such as Ukraine will force countries that are currently net beneficiaries of EU economic funds to cease to be so. Poland, a faithful ally of Ukraine in military matters, has defended tooth and nail the application of tariffs on agricultural products from its neighbor, ignoring the European Commission’s requests to the contrary.

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