Political Will or Procedure? Assessing Ukraine’s EU Membership Goals in 2023
Right after a politically stormy January in Ukraine, when some officials were sacked and others suspected of corruption, President Zelensky seized the opportunity thus created to promote Ukraine’s EU agenda in February. The anticorruption wave has cleared the way for Kyiv to increase pressure on Brussels, first, to provide more support in the face of Russia’s new military campaign, and second, to start negotiations on Ukraine’s EU membership.
The EU-Ukraine Summit in Kyiv
The EU-Ukraine summit held in Kyiv on February 3, 2023, was the first summit since Russia's full-scale invasion. Despite all the dangers, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen along with fifteen of the twenty-seven EU commissioners arrived in the capital of Ukraine to meet with the Ukrainian government and discuss five key strategic issues: (1) Ukraine’s EU accession process, (2) the EU’s support for Ukraine in the latter’s fight against Russia’s war of aggression, (3) Kyiv’s initiatives for a just peace and accountability, (4) reconstruction and economic cooperation, and (5) global food security. All these issues are important, but for Kyiv the two first items are of primary importance.
The major unanswered question hanging over the proceedings was, how fast can Ukraine become an EU member? The Brussels delegation clearly expects to follow the usual procedure: a candidate country should meet the Copenhagen criteria and receive an official decision from the European Commission on how well it has done on that objective; based on the commission’s positive assessment, the EU Council can start negotiations with a country on membership. However, Kyiv is trying to insert political will as a factor that might speed up the process and secure a positive evaluation from the commission quickly.
As President Zelensky and his team made clear during the summit, Ukraine wants to become an EU member as soon as possible. This position is supported by the demonstration of the administration’s political will to accomplish this task, bureaucratic obstacles notwithstanding. Accordingly, representatives of the Ukrainian government stated that 77 percent of the obligations under the Association Agreement had been met, including 90 percent in the area of justice. These numbers were accepted by the EU participants and experts at the summit, though with some reservations.
The EU’s official position on how well Ukraine complied with the integration plan is as yet unknown: Kyiv expects that the European Commission will publish a written document in March 2023. In this document it will be clear which factor came out ahead in the current talks, procedure or will. During a joint press conference following the EU-Ukraine summit in Kyiv, President Zelensky stressed that the main task of his government was to start accession negotiations with the EU in 2023.
Zelensky’s Lightning Visits to London, Paris, and Brussels
As several participants of the summit in Kyiv shared with me, President Zelensky’s team has achieved all tasks relevant to issues 3, 4, and 5 at the summit, however, success on the tasks needed for a favorable outcome on issues 1 and 2, Ukraine’s EU accession process and EU support in the war against Russia, was less certain. The summit resulted in no promises about Ukraine’s EU membership negotiations in 2023, and talks about airplanes and intermediate-range missiles for Ukraine to end the war this year did not conclude with clear commitments.
With respect to the second issue, Ukraine was assured that the EU will continue to provide political and military support to Ukraine for as long as necessary. The support includes military aid of about €3.6 billion in the framework of the European Peace Facility and the EU Military Assistance Mission to train 30,000 Ukrainian soldiers in 2023. Together with military support provided by individual EU member states, total EU military assistance to Ukraine is estimated at nearly €12 billion in 2023. Still, this form of military support, while needed and welcomed, was not responsive to the issue of jets and missiles.
The Zelensky administration therefore organized lightning visits of the president to major European capitals to ensure that the necessary weapons would reach Ukraine soon and that EU membership negotiations would start this year.
On February 8 and 9, 2023, President Zelensky visited London, Paris, and Brussels. His public speeches and the responses of his British, French, German, and EU partners showed that some progress is being made on weaponry. Prime Minister Sunak said that the UK “is assessing the possibility” of providing Ukraine with fighter jets. President Macron did not “rule out” fighter jets, and promised greater military support soon. Also, Ukraine’s European allies started considering providing missiles after the U.S. decision to provide Ukraine with longer-range bombs. Moreover, all three capitals openly support Zelensky’s ten-step peace plan.
Yet the membership issue continues to be discussed between Ukrainian and EU leaders, as indicated by deliberations at the Special European Council meeting in Brussels on February 9, 2023. Despite a warm welcome for Ukraine from the commissioners and a round of applause from the European parliamentarians, Brussels did not change its procedure-oriented response. As the official document states, “The European Council acknowledged the considerable efforts that Ukraine has made to meet the objectives required for its EU candidate status and welcomed the country’s reform efforts in such difficult times. EU leaders encouraged Ukraine to fulfil the conditions specified in the Commission’s opinion on its membership application in order to advance towards future EU membership” (emphasis added).
Thus the first task of the Zelensky administration at the summit, to start the EU-Ukraine membership negotiations in 2023, has not been achieved. Not yet.
Political Will or the Usual Procedure?
In June 2022, Ukraine became an EU candidate. This decision was made by the EU Council based on the European Commission’s statement: “The European Commission has found that Ukraine overall is well advanced in reaching the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities; has continued its strong macro-economic record, demonstrating a noteworthy resilience with macroeconomic and financial stability, while needing to continue ambitious structural economic reforms; and has gradually approximated to substantial elements of the EU acquis in many areas.”
This statement was made about a country under enormous, relentless attack by the Russian Federation, with its government and society living under wartime conditions, including martial law, economic hardships, and mass migration. In the European Commission’s statement—and in the decision made by the European Council based on the arguments therein—one can see both references to facts and a very visible political will to support Ukraine in its aspiration to become formally a part of Europe.
The political will factor does speak to Ukraine’s leadership and people. The Zelensky administration wants to lean into it further to ensure that EU membership negotiations start this year.
Several days ago, I spoke to two Ukrainian diplomats, who made an argument for launching negotiations very clearly. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, international relations have fewer and fewer rules working. If the guarantees of the Budapest Memorandum do not work, if the norms of the Ukraine-Russia Friendship Agreement are violated, if WTO rules and procedures have less and less value in the multidimensional antagonism with Russia, why should Articles 6 and 49 of the EU Treaty (Accession criteria, otherwise known as the Copenhagen criteria) remain so inflexible? The Ukrainian government has demonstrated the political will to join the EU, and Kyiv expects that the same will be demonstrated by the European Commission.
My interlocutors also pointed out that political will was demonstrated by a united Europe (at that time it was the European Community) in the case of Greece: the country was in a difficult sociopolitical and economic situation, but the will of France’s and Western Germany’s leadership made Greece’s membership possible.
My colleagues in Brussels also say that the internal EC debate around Ukraine’s membership special case goes on. As Zelensky rightly says, in this war Ukrainians are demonstrating the will to defend themselves and Europe at the same time—and the EU leadership understands this. But the EU is an alliance based on values, norms, and rules: to value will above norms speaks against its foundational idea. Also, the commissioners must take into account that there is a queue of countries working hard to meet all EU accession requirements before the start of negotiations. So the internal debates in Brussels are over a decision that adequately takes into account all aspects of the situation.
This leaves the answer to the all-important question hanging. Will Kyiv achieve its goal on issue 1 and start negotiations on EU membership in 2023 or will the procedural norms prevail, which would likely result in delay?
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
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The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more