European Union leaders should allow formal talks on Ukraine and Moldova’s accession to the bloc to start once both countries have finalised the necessary reforms, the European Commission has said.
“In light of the results achieved by Ukraine and Moldova, and of the ongoing reform efforts, the Commission has recommended that the Council opens accession negotiations with both countries,” the EU executive announced as it unveiled a long-awaited assessment of candidate countries’ membership bids.
Upon the recommendation, EU leaders could back the opening of Ukraine and Moldova’s accession talks during the next European Council summit in mid-December, a decision which requires the unanimous blessing of all 27 member states.
This is the first time the European Commission has green-lighted formal accession talks before a country has fully met all pre-conditions but Russia’s ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine has injected a sense of urgency into the traditionally sluggish process of approving new EU members.
According to the Commission, technical work could start “immediately” once EU leaders endorse talks so that the negotiating framework – the roadmap for negotiations – can be swiftly adopted once both Ukraine and Moldova finalise the pending reforms. The Commission says it stands ready to report on progress in completing those reforms by March next year.
European Commission President Von der Leyen stressed that the process remains merit-based and that no “fixed date” for full membership can be given.
“Enlargement is a vital policy for the European Union. Completing our Union is the call of history, the natural horizon of our Union,” she said.
“Past enlargements have shown the enormous benefits both for the accession countries and the EU. We all win,” she added.
Speaking to Euronews shortly before the report’s release, Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, said it was an “important assessment” and that the country was planning to announce its next steps in response to the recommendations later on Wednesday.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the country’s president, described the decision as a “historic step that paves the way to a stronger EU with Ukraine as its member.”
Moldova’s President Maia Sandu also welcomed the Commission’s recommendation and vowed to “work relentlessly” towards EU membership.
Both Ukraine and Moldova were granted official EU candidate status in June last year, just weeks after Russia rolled its tanks into the country, reviving EU enlargement from its long state of dormancy.
EU leaders recognise that the bloc’s geopolitical relevance hinges on the integration of its eastern flank, with Germany’s top diplomat Annalena Baerbock saying last week that the whole European continent would become more “vulnerable” if the EU does not enlarge.
The Commission has also recommended upgrading Georgia to the status of official EU candidate country, seventeen months after it was named a potential candidate.
Accession talks for Bosnia and Herzegovina – the only of the five Western Balkan candidate countries not yet in official talks – can be endorsed “once the necessary degree of compliance is achieved,” von der Leyen said.
Key reforms pending
The new assessment of candidate countries’ progress on the path to EU membership confirms Ukraine has met four of the seven pre-conditions for opening negotiations, with some work still to be done on anti-corruption, de-oligarchisation, and the rights of minorities.
Moldova also needs to finalise judicial reforms and introduce further anti-graft measures.
Both countries have achieved at least 90% of the required reforms, a European Commission official said, suggesting Kyiv and Chişinău could tie the loose ends in its reforms in time for talks to start in the first half of 2024.
But the outstanding reforms could generate discomfort among some EU leaders. Diplomatic sources told Euronews that while member states are likely to back the opening of talks in December, some countries prefer to delay formal negotiations well into 2024 to ensure reforms are properly completed.
Hungary’s ultranationalist prime minister Viktor Orbán has previously threatened to veto Ukraine’s EU membership bid for what he has described as a failure to uphold the rights of the Hungarian minority in the westernmost province of the Transcarpathian Oblast.
As part of its reforms, Ukraine must ensure it integrates minority languages, including EU languages Romanian and Hungarian, into the country’s secondary education system and media landscape, in accordance with recommendations by the European Council’s Venice Convention.
But Russian, estimated to be spoken by about 30% of Ukrainians, will be excluded from the linguistic reforms. “The use of the Russian language is not something the Commission will look at,” a senior EU official confirmed on Wednesday.
Strong progress on tackling corruption is also considered essential to secure member states’ backing. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, sworn in last month to lead a coalition that includes a pro-Russian party, recently expressed reservations about EU plans to increase financial support to Ukraine, saying in a post on Facebook that “Ukraine is one of the most corrupt countries in the world.”
Ukraine comes in at 116 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranks countries from least to most corrupt.
Despite the entrenchment of corruption, Zelenskyy has made enormous efforts to comply with Brussels’ anti-graft demands. A corruption crackdown in his government culminated in September when his defence minister Oleksii Reznikov left his post following multiple scandals involving the procurement of goods and equipment in his ministry.
The EU is asking Kyiv to raise the legal cap on the number of staff in its National Anti-Corruption Bureau, and give its National Agency on Corruption Prevention more powers to verify the assets of public officials.
Wednesday’s report also calls on Kyiv to tighten its government lobbying rules to stamp out the influence of oligarchs on public administrations.
“Oligarchs are officially dead, not from the physical point of view, but as a creation of the post-Soviet transition period. So there are many things to be accomplished,” deputy prime minister Olha Stefanishyna told Euronews.
“But basically, we have been recognized as a country which has overcome this influence. And there is no way back,” she added.
This article was amended after December 12 was mistakenly mentioned as the date of the next European Council summit.