Ukraine prepares for a long road to EU membership

Civil society organizations warn that the country is not yet ready for its entry into the 27-member bloc and are asking the government to recognize publicly that the process will take years

Cristian Segura
Ampliación Ucrania Unión Europea
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy receives the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen in Kyiv on November 4.@vonderleyen

There are three difficult goals that Ukrainian society dreams of achieving, and of these, entering the European Union is the most tangible. The other two are joining NATO and expelling the Russian invader from their country. Being a member of the North Atlantic Alliance is practically impossible as long as Russia is occupying part of its territory, as French General Jerôme Pellistrandi explained to this newspaper last week. More and more voices among Kyiv’s allies recognize that liberating all of Ukraine’s territories is not an achievable goal either. Entering the EU is, after decades knocking on the door, a hope that can be realized. However, civil society institutions involved in the accession process have asked the government in Kyiv to make it clear to Ukrainians that the path to full EU membership will take many years.

Ukraine is a country that urgently needs good news. It is also a country that has made a great effort in legal reforms to be accepted as an EU candidate, as highlighted by President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen during her latest visit to Kyiv, on November 4. The most remarkable and unprecedented statement that von der Leyen made is that Ukraine has taken a leap forward while fighting a war for its right to exist. But Ukrainian political analysis centers have warned that the government is playing with fire by reiterating to the population that it is possible in the medium term for Ukraine to be accepted into the EU. Last January, the country’s Prime Minister Denis Shmihal reiterated in Politico that the objective was to access the EU in 2025. His Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Olga Stefanishina repeated it last September in Voice of America: Ukraine will be ready to join the club of European nations in two years.

This Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy welcomed the European Commission’s recommendation to begin accession negotiations with Kyiv next year. “Today the history of Ukraine and all of Europe has taken the right step,” declared the president in a speech published on social networks. Zelenskiy added that Ukraine “must be in the EU” and that “Ukrainians deserve it,” because its army “protects European values” and the country has been able to “keep its word” and reform state institutions “in a time of full-scale war.”

‘It won’t be a couple of years’

“We have to communicate a realistic image to citizens and not dreams.” This is the warning from Viktoriia Melnyk, director of the European integration program at the Ukrainian Center of Policy and Legal Reform. On the last weekend of October, Melnyk and nine other experts participated in a conference in Kyiv to prepare Ukrainian ministries for the implementation of reforms to access the EU. “One thing is to reform the laws and another is how they are applied, and that requires time,” said the Netherlands Ambassador to Ukraine Jennes de Mol: “The negotiations will last years. This must be taken into account to avoid frustrations. It certainly won’t be a couple of years.”

“Integration into the EU will not be a bed of roses and photos on Instagram. It will be extremely difficult because there will be great competition between countries,” said Hanna Hopko, president of ANTS, the political studies entity that organized the debate. Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center, highlighted the agricultural sector as the largest area of friction between states, and recalled the current conflict with Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary. The three EU Member States have vetoed exports of Ukrainian cereals and vegetables, despite the European Commission resolutions that allow them to enter free of tariffs.

The conclusion of all the analysts at the ANTS conference was that the Ukrainian executive branch is still too inexperienced to start accession negotiations with any guarantees. And the main problem, they agreed, is the low level of officials to introduce the 28,000 community standards that the country must adopt from the start. Of these regulations, 1,600 are mandatory in the early stages of the access period, according to Ivan Nagornyak, deputy director of the Government Office for European Integration. Nagornyak revealed that the negotiating team is still in the selection phase, and that his “sherpas” — which Getmanchuk summed up as a group of no more than 20 people who have “mastered the language of Brussels” — have so far received only two months of preparation and training.

“Not much progress is being made and staff levels in many ministries are low. Only four ministries [out of 21] have directions for reforming the civil service according to EU standards,” Melnyk said. Getmanchuk indicated that there is still no plan on how the negotiations will be led. Her recommendation is to follow the Polish model, which had two chief negotiators with coordination power over all ministries: “We have not decided here, and we run the risk of losing a year without progress, as happened with [North] Macedonia.”

Getmanchuk and Melnyk stressed that it is essential for universities to start training the generation who will lead the path to the EU, “people who have Ukraine’s entry into the EU as a raison d’être.” To do this, there must be a change in the mentality of Ukrainian society, according to Oleksandr Saienko, former minister of reforms during the presidency of Petro Poroshenko: “We must transform the Ukrainian attitude that believes that the less bureaucracy, the better. Because now it is a priority to create a competent and less corrupt functional body. Being effective in this is key to accessing the EU.”

In Ukraine, as in other countries of the former Soviet Union, there is an endemic allergy to state intervention. The two main political currents in which the origins of the EU lie — social democracy and Christian democracy — are practically non-existent in Ukraine, and in their place are libertarianism and private initiative over the state. The path to the EU must also be the construction of a new country, according to Getmanchuk, in which the reforms that are applied, “no matter how unpopular they may be, are not sold as an imposition from Brussels, but because it is Ukraine that wants to join the EU.” “Otherwise,” indicates the director of New Europe, “it will encourage populism.”

Attract talent from the private sector

All this will be possible if Ukraine is initially able to create an elite corps of at least 1,000 officials to adapt to the demands of the EU, according to Hlib Vyshlinsky, director of the Center for Economic Strategy. “The best professionals have abandoned ministries for the private sector. The war has aggravated it because those who continue in public service do so almost as volunteers. They receive just enough [money] to survive.” Nagornyak admitted that attracting talent from the private sector will be essential, and for this he hopes to receive community funding.

Vyshlinsky’s words point to one of the areas in which Brussels warns that there is much left to solve, that is, the systemic corruption that is rife in the country. Sources from the Ukrainian presidency explained to Time magazine on October 30 that despite the many dismissals approved by Zelenskiy in the public administration due to suspicions of corruption, and despite the efforts to create an independent judiciary and a powerful Prosecutor’s Office, corruption is growing: “There are people stealing as if there were no tomorrow.” The sources who spoke with Time did so on condition of remaining anonymous, but political officials have publicly stated the same with their names and surnames. Danilo Hermantsev, head of the Ukrainian Parliament’s committee on finance and taxes, admitted last February that economic irregularities in the customs service “have only gotten worse during the war.” Mark Savchuk, advisor to the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Office, explained to EL PAÍS last August that the poison of corruption continues to affect all levels, including the presidency: “We have a serious corruption problem, because even in Zelenskiy’s team there is corruption and ineptitude.”

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