On Thursday, head of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and 15 European commissioners arrived in Kyiv. They will hold talks with Ukraine’s leadership, which is hoping for news of the country’s fast move towards EU membership, but European diplomats are signaling that this could take a considerable amount of time.
The European Commission said in a statement that the meeting in Kyiv “will allow us to exchange views on many areas of cooperation between the EU and Ukraine, to discuss future reconstruction, as well as the country’s European path.” Von der Leyen tweeted a photo at a train station in Kiev and wrote: “It’s nice to be back in Kiev – for the fourth time since the start of the Russian invasion.”
Experts expect that at the Ukrainian-European summit in Kyiv, for the first time, Brussels will comment at a high level on whether Ukraine has come close to joining the European Union over the past seven months.
President Zelensky called the summit a week of European integration. He signaled that Kyiv expects specific solutions from its European partners, given the progress his country has shown in moving towards the EU, despite a full-scale Russian invasion.
In the spring, Ukraine urgently filed an application for EU membership, and the EU unheard of quickly – already in June – granted the country the status of an accession candidate .
On the eve of the summit, Prime Minister of Ukraine Denys Shmyhal said that the country had set itself an ambitious goal – to join the EU in two years. But several EU member states called on the leadership of the union to explain to the authorities of Ukraine that it was impossible to do this within such a time frame.
The EU accession process usually takes several years, and there are currently several countries in the queue. In addition to Ukraine, Albania (in 2014), Moldova (in 2022), North Macedonia (in 2005), Montenegro (in 2008), Serbia (in 2009) and Turkey (in 1999).
The Ukraine-EU summit is a key event in relations between Kyiv and Brussels. They usually take place towards the end of the year to take stock of cooperation over the past 12 months, sign documents or announce breakthrough solutions.
But in 2022, due to the war, the summit was postponed several times and in the end it was decided to hold it at the beginning of 2023. The time and place were finalized only on January 9th.
Conditions for joining the EU
Against the backdrop of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the EU has ramped up its financial and military support to Kyiv in an unprecedented way and imposed nine packages of sanctions against Russia.
Granting Ukraine the status of a candidate for EU membership in June was accompanied by several conditions. Ukraine must fulfill the requirements for reforms in seven areas, including judicial reform and anti-corruption steps. Only after that Kyiv will be able to claim to move on to the next stage – the official start of negotiations on joining the EU.
In some areas, Kyiv really showed progress. The work of the High Council of Justice was launched, the Parliament adopted laws on the media and national minorities, in July 2022 a new head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAP) was appointed, and anti-corruption bodies have significantly stepped up their work in recent months and launched high-profile cases.
On Wednesday this week, a search was carried out at the home of one of the richest people in the country, oligarch Igor Kolomoisky. Its reason was the investigation of major corruption schemes associated with the companies “Ukrtatnafta” and “Ukrnafta”.
But there are areas where the West still does not see progress. Ukraine still needs to appoint the head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, complete the selection of members of the High Council of Justice (HJC) and the High Qualifications Board of Judges (HQJC), and reform of the Constitutional Court remains the main stumbling block.
Not the shortest way
A preliminary version of the EU statement, which diplomats will release after the summit, says that the future of Ukraine is in the European Union. It also acknowledges the significant efforts made by Kyiv in recent months to confirm its candidacy status.
But sources in Brussels told the BBC that several countries, including France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries, have secured changes to parts of the statement that they felt were overly optimistic in tone.
Senior European officials have no doubt that Ukraine will join the EU in the future, but, according to BBC sources, no one wants to give an exact time frame. “We will do it, but the shortest path will not work,” one of the diplomats said.
Brussels will officially evaluate Ukraine’s progress in reforms only this autumn, but the Ukrainian side made it clear that it has serious hopes for the summit.
The EU, in turn, at this summit plans to once again express solidarity with Ukraine in its struggle against Russian aggression, emphasizing that holding such a meeting in a military zone is a historic event.