Olha Stefanishyna: ‘Ukraine’s EU accession talks should be started as soon as possible’

The Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration says that Kyiv is ‘depoliticizing’ the grain crisis and that it will do ‘whatever it takes’ to retain Washington’s support

Olha Stefanishyna Integración Ucrania UE
Olha Stefanishyna, Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine, in Kyiv on June 22, 2023.Global Images Ukraine (Getty)
María R. Sahuquillo

Olha Stefanishyna usually carries thick folders under her arm. She is the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine. She is also the person who closely handles the dossiers of reforms that Ukraine has undertaken to ensure that the European Union opens negotiations that will end in the country’s long-awaited accession to the bloc. It was the large-scale war launched by the Kremlin that changed the European security architecture and triggered this idea of accession that, in the past, would have taken years. Now, Stefanishyna hopes that these conversations will be had as soon as possible. But first Ukraine has to receive a positive report from the European Commission on the extensive reforms required, especially in the rule of law and anti-corruption, issues that were discussed this Monday at the meeting of EU foreign ministers in Kyiv, where she went from bilateral meeting to another with her folders perfectly organized.

Question. The European Commission is exploring Ukraine’s gradual integration into the EU, and that idea is beginning to take shape, with the support of some member states and the European Council. The debate continues, but would that formula satisfy Ukraine?

Answer. It is a very important debate, because we have not yet started accession talks. But we are already a big part of the EU. That is why we are part of the energy market: we are one of the main exporters. So we are already very integrated, which means we probably won’t have to wait until the final decision on joining the EU to become part of, say, the EU family, at least in economic terms. The most important thing for us is that any discussion like that does not lead to additional layers in the accession process. That is why we have been granted candidate status, with its corresponding stages and requirements. We have fulfilled all the requested reforms regarding the political criteria, so if there is a positive evaluation from the European Commission, accession talks should start as soon as possible. And those negotiations are not a political discussion, but a real dialogue based on merit.

Q. Brussels has laid out seven broad points of reform prior to opening these conversations, and is well on top of the process. The United States has called for clearer elements with a time limit and links its aid to anti-corruption reforms, which is also a key point for the EU.

A. The U.S. proposals do not contain anything new or anything that we have not already been doing. We have launched an agenda of major reforms since 2014 and the Association Agreement with the EU has now been in force for almost ten years. All necessary reforms are underway, even in a time of war. Most changes are covered by the seven guidelines given by the EU. We are coordinating all these proposals with European partners, the Americans, and the broader G7 group. It will be set up as a more comprehensive plan that would pave the way for transformation, maintaining financial support, but also planning for recovery and reconstruction efforts. It is now important that we prioritize areas of focus, especially on issues related to the rule of law and the fight against corruption.

Q. These are two of the points that most concern Brussels and that could hinder not only the opening of the accession negotiations, but also the integration of Ukraine into the European bloc.

A. On the rule of law, we have completed the most important step: ensuring that an adequate level of trust is generated in the institutions that were selected, together with Ukraine’s allies, to carry the enormous credit based on integrity. The same in the fight against corruption. The political framework is there, the institutions are there and they are absolutely empowered. And we see that they are showing a significant result, there is a lot of public debate about various cases [of corruption] that have arisen here and there. But all this also shows that there is no impunity for anyone and that the institutions are working.

Q. Are the latest changes in the government and in other institutions due to these reforms, are they to demonstrate to citizens that there is no impunity?

A. Yes, in all institutions, from the local to the national level. Likewise, if we see any cases of corruption in the army or defense sector, we launch thorough investigations throughout the system.

Q. Do you have data on these investigations?

R. The attorney general’s office has opened more than 2,400 criminal cases on corruption matters in the first quarter of the year, resulting in about 2,000 convictions. That’s 51.8% more than the same period last year. In addition, assets worth about $19 million have been seized. And not only there, the National Anti-Corruption Office indicted 147 people in the first half of the year and has secured convictions for 22 people on criminal charges. A state anti-corruption program has been initiated, key anti-corruption officials have been appointed, and the obligation of parties and officials to make their assets public has been restored.

Q. Do you fear that the EU’s support will begin to crumble? Are you worried about the grain crisis and the new government in Slovakia?

A. There is a permanent process of dialogue on all issues: from military support, to sanctions, enlargement, and the reform agenda. Ukraine’s commitment will not be diminished or affected by any bilateral issues that may arise. We do everything possible to avoid tensions in that regard. So we have taken a step to depoliticize the grain issue. And we have returned to the dialogue table where the agriculture ministers are speaking and with the European Commission [Ukraine had filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization over the blockade of Ukrainian grain decreed by Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary]. This dialogue is always difficult when it comes to decisions about financial support or sanctions.

Q. Following the decision of the U.S. Congress to approve a temporary financing law that does not include aid to Ukraine, are you afraid that the support of Washington, a key partner, will falter? In the EU there are many voices that are afraid that Europe will end up being left alone and that this will cause fractures.

A. Well, it’s quite a new experience for us, but we understand that we’re not talking about the entire United States. There is a huge group of Western democracies that have been making decisions together since the beginning of the war and even before. And I am sure that this unity and this powerful union of democracies will be able to avoid further disruption in terms of financial support. We understand that there might be a proposal on specific financial support for Ukraine, and I am sure that it will enjoy bipartisan support in accordance with the current agreements in Washington.

Q. So you're not afraid of losing their support now or after the elections at the end of next year?

A. Whatever Ukraine must do to maintain support, it will do. And so far, these efforts have been successful under the last four U.S. presidents and a different Senate.

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