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Explained | What Ukraine needs to do to keep its EU membership bid going

Kyiv: European Union leaders decided on Thursday to launch formal membership talks with Ukraine, providing a much-needed boost for Kyiv amid uncertainty over the future of vital wartime foreign assistance.

Brussels offered Kyiv candidate status four months after Moscow’s February 2022 invasion, prompting a rush by Ukrainian authorities to reform priority areas identified by the European Commission.

In its Nov. 8 assessment, the European Commission praised Ukraine’s progress and recommended that EU leaders launch negotiations, but singled out several immediate tasks to complete.

It also outlined a broader set of reforms, spanning virtually every sector of governance, for Ukraine to pursue over the coming year as it prepares for potential membership.

Short-term priorities

The commission reported last month that Ukraine had fulfilled four of its seven recommendations, including hiring anti-corruption officials, preparing the judiciary for a major overhaul and aligning media legislation with EU standards.

Most recommendations were aimed at shoring up the rule of law, key to rooting out a Soviet legacy of graft and mismanagement.

The commission, which had suggested the remaining three conditions be met before talks were formally launched, said it would assess Ukraine’s progress again next March.

Before this week’s summit, lawmakers had passed legislation to meet virtually every last one – including expanding the National Anti-Corruption Bureau and protecting minority rights – even though that timing wasn’t explicitly required.

Leonid Litra, of the New Europe Center think tank in Kyiv, said Ukraine’s rapid progress had been aimed at keeping Kyiv “on the safe side” by providing sceptics as few excuses as possible to block Ukraine’s bid.

Hungary, in particular, has criticized Kyiv’s treatment of ethnic Hungarians in the far west of the country, and its leader, Viktor Orban, had demanded the EU skip any decision on Ukraine’s membership talks at the Dec. 14-15 gathering.

Despite the commission’s support, any decision requires the unanimous backing of EU leaders.

EU leaders on Thursday bypassed objections from Orban by getting him to leave the room while they voted on launching the talks.

Long haul

Accomplishing these short-term tasks is just a fraction of the sweeping policy changes the commission recommended Ukraine make across a variety of sectors, from public administration to food safety, by the end of 2024.

In the field of anti-corruption, for instance, officials need to prove the fight against graft is “systemic and irrevocable” in part by ensuring the independence of specialised investigators and prosecutors.

Authorities must also intensify their crackdown on large-scale illegal smuggling and improve asset recovery – on top of implementing a “time-bound and measurable action plan” to reform law enforcement more broadly.

In the economic realm, officials are expected to cut red tape and reintegrate displaced Ukrainians into the labour market, among other measures, as foreign investors prepare to help rebuild Ukraine.

That’s in addition to a wide range of more granular measures like improving state statistics collection and harmonising intellectual property rights protection with that of the EU.

Katarina Mathernova, the EU’s ambassador to Ukraine, described the challenge ahead in blunt terms.

“I have news for you: get used to it,” she said during a briefing in Kyiv last month, referring to the many requirements Kyiv will need to meet. “The enlargement process is a gruelling one.”

Wild cards

The political challenges may be far from over, however, with Orban on Thursday blocking a 50 billion euro financial aid package for Ukraine.

Kyiv’s window to push ahead with reforms may also be narrow, some others have said.

One European diplomat in Kyiv, speaking on condition of anonymity, believes it will be crucial for Ukraine to demonstrate steady progress to help sustain what may become flagging enthusiasm within the EU.

Litra, of the New Europe Center, said the Western Balkans’ protracted membership process shows accession is not always merit-based and equally dependent on intra-bloc politics.

“We need all the stars to align, basically.”

(Published 15 December 2023, 10:47 IST)

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