Ukraine & Moldova Progress Towards EU Membership

Ursula von der Leyen spilled the beans in Kyiv on Saturday: the European Commission will issue a positive opinion this Wednesday on the launch of Ukraine’s accession negotiations to the European Union (EU). The same will be true for Moldova. Certainly, the final decision rests with the twenty-seven heads of state and government who will meet on December 14 and 15 and a surprise cannot be ruled out, unanimity being required.

The head of the European executive nevertheless affirmed on Saturday that Ukraine already met 90% of the conditions set for accession negotiations to be launched. “We have made a lot of reforms and we have adopted the necessary laws to respond to the recommendations” made by Brussels, said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kouleba. “There are still two or three reforms to be finalized, particularly in the area of the fight against corruption and respect for the rights of Hungarian, Romanian and Russian minorities, for negotiations to actually begin,” tempers a European diplomat. This is why negotiations will only actually begin once these laws have been adopted, either in March (as the Commission wishes) or in June, with many member states deeming the three-month deadline too short. Chisinau did a little less well than Kyiv, but its delay can be made up without difficulty, according to the diplomat already cited.

Finally, Georgia will be granted candidate status, but on condition that the current government stops circumventing European sanctions against Russia and respects the rule of law. The impeachment procedure launched against the President of the Republic, Salomé Zourabichvili, who opposed a law on “foreign agents” inspired by a Russian law, remains in the throat of the Twenty-Seven. “This is a message addressed to Georgian public opinion to continue to put pressure on the government of Irakli Garibachvili,” said a senior official.

Ukraine can only join once the war is over

No one could have imagined, even two years ago, that Ukraine and Moldova would one day be members of the EU. But Russian aggression changed the situation: a few days after the start of the invasion, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, submitted a request for membership on February 28, 2022, followed, in March, by Moldova. And on June 23 of the same year, the European Council of Heads of State and Government granted them candidate status and, at the same time, recognized Georgia’s European vocation. An express decision ordered by the geopolitical context: it was a question of affirming the solidarity of the EU with countries attacked or threatened by Russia. But the speed taken by Kyiv and Chisinau to fulfill the preconditions for launching negotiations, particularly in terms of the rule of law and the fight against corruption, surprised everyone in Brussels.

However, this is only a first step. Once opened, the negotiations will take time, both for Moldova and for Ukraine, the political and economic reforms to be accomplished being particularly numerous. They will, in fact, have to adopt all of the European laws in force, what is called in Brussels “the community acquis”, grouped into 33 chapters (competition, free movement of goods, financial services, agriculture, etc.) . Countries like Montenegro and Serbia, which have been negotiating since 2012 and 2014 respectively, can attest to the immensity of the task ahead.

Above all, even if this is not specified in the opinion of the European Commission so as not to give additional leverage to Moscow, Ukraine will only be able to join once the war is over. On the one hand, because it is difficult to reform a country in the middle of a conflict and, on the other hand, because it would force the EU to go to war alongside it under the mutual assistance clause contained in the treaties.

Viktor Orbán could block everything

At the same time, current member states will need to reform the EU so that it can bear the weight of this major enlargement, with Ukraine and Moldova taking their place in a queue that includes Serbia, the Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and ultimately, Georgia. Or a European Union which will go from 27 to 36… “This implies not only a reform of community institutions, but also that the Union strengthens its common policies in order to ensure its sovereignty, which requires investment capacities, a better protection of external borders, the establishment of a common defense, etc..” explains a European diplomat. France insisted on this point for a long time and in the end all the States accepted the idea of not simply adapting the number of commissioners or European deputies. This negotiation parallel to enlargement promises to be just as difficult, with the Twenty-Seven being far from all sharing the same objectives and the same ambitions.

It remains to be seen whether this whole process risks being derailed in December. Indeed, Hungary, led by the populist Viktor Orbán, could block the opening of negotiations with Ukraine by citing the lack of protection of the Hungarian minority. Likewise, Austria, Slovenia, but also Hungary are demanding the opening of accession negotiations with Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose status as a candidate country was recognized in December 2022. The problem is that the governance of this country – separated into two entities – is incompatible with EU rules. It would therefore be necessary to renegotiate the 1995 Dayton agreements, a mission deemed impossible. At this stage, we cannot exclude a blockage and a major European crisis.

This therefore means that the next major enlargement of the European Union promises to be acrobatic to say the least.

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