Jun 12, 2024

Navigating EU Accession

Ukraine has made good progress meeting the EU’s accession criteria and implementing laws. However, the ongoing war makes this process all the harder.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen attends a session of the Ukrainian parliament, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine November 4, 2023.
All rights reserved

The Ukrainian people have strongly supported the idea of joining the European Union for a long time. Granting EU candidacy status to Ukraine in June 2022 resulted in huge public enthusiasm. However, substantial and systematic efforts are needed from nearly all Ukrainian public authorities in order to prepare for accession. 

It goes without saying that Ukraine’s experience is unique, as the country has to implement the accession-related reforms while fighting a full-scale war for survival. The “Copenhagen criteria” are among the most important accession requirements for any EU aspirant country. These include the following conditions: stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human and minorities’ rights; a functioning market economy and the ability to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the EU; and the ability to fulfill membership obligations, including implementing EU acquis.

There have been considerable achievements in meeting the EU’s Copenhagen criteria, but challenges remain.

Democracy and Rule of Law

EU integration has already had a considerable impact on Ukraine’s reforms in areas such as the rule of law, combating corruption, and protecting human rights. 

For example, in 2015 Ukraine established a system of dedicated anti-corruption authorities, as part of visa liberalization arrangements with the EU. Shortly before qualifying as an EU candidate country, Ukraine ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (the Istanbul Convention), thus demonstrating serious intentions to protect essential human rights in preparation for joining the EU.

Seven candidacy recommendations provided by the EU in 2022 have also given Ukraine a significant boost in rule of law reforms. Ukraine’s candidacy and a visible EU membership pathway pushed Ukrainian politicians and authorities to take action on even the most challenging reforms in terms of the rule of law. This included the appointment of senior leadership for the anticorruption authorities; staff and structural reforms of the judiciary and its governance, such as the High Council of Justice and the High Qualification Commission of Judges of Ukraine; and also the adoption of media laws that had previously been stuck in the parliamentary process. 

In the year and a half since the Ukrainian government started implementing EU candidacy recommendations, it has achieved substantial progress. This is why many Ukrainian experts expect that accession negotiations will be a serious stimulus for further reforms related to rule of law.

However, full-scale war and continued martial law represent a serious challenge for democracy. For instance, according to Ukraine’s constitution, parliamentary elections are not possible during martial law, which has led to a certain deterioration of parliamentarism. The role of the Ukrainian parliament has been reduced, and a number of MPs are not motivated to work under such conditions. Yet it is legally not possible to hold elections and refresh the composition of the parliament until the end of the war. 

Fundamental rights are obviously also under threat during the war. Ukrainian males are limited in traveling abroad and can be conscripted into the military against their will. Confiscation, the seizure of private property for defense purposes, is also possible under martial law. Protests and rallies are also prohibited. Media freedom has been limited by the establishment of the national “TV Marathon,” which unified all the channels into one for news coverage shortly after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion; some television channels were pushed to agree to this arrangement. 

Some of these restrictions are clearly necessary for the survival of the country during the war; however, some observers may consider the measures excessive, or even a threat to democracy. 

Although the return to democracy after the war may be a challenging task, negotiations with the EU will be the stimulus that will facilitate this process. Eighty-four percent of Ukrainian citizens support joining the EU, and therefore any Ukrainian politician will have to consider their opinions and show progress in the negotiations with the EU.

Functioning Market Economy

The European Commission, in its enlargement report of 2023, assessed the Ukrainian economy as between an early stage and some level of preparation for EU membership. One of the main reasons for the poor condition of Ukraine’s economy is a direct consequence of the devastating war and destruction caused by the Russian invasion. 

Before February 2022, Ukraine had survived the hybrid Russian invasion in 2014, when parts of the industrially developed Donbass region and Crimea were occupied (about 7 percent of Ukrainian territory). Between 2014 and 2015, Ukraine lost 15.8 percent of its GDP. The loss of people and industrial enterprises as well as the security risks significantly slowed down economic growth over the following years. The ongoing Russian aggression resulted in a number of negative trends in Ukraine’s economy, including deindustrialization, FDI outflow, and heavy reliance on commodity (e.g., grain) exports.

In 2022, Ukraine’s GDP fell by another 29.2 percent. However, according to a study by the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies, if Ukraine’s economy had not been affected by the Russian invasion, the country would have had the same trajectory of economic development in terms of GDP growth as the Central and Eastern European members of the EU. Today, the Ukrainian economy continues to suffer from Russian shelling, drones, and missile attacks aimed at civil infrastructure. For instance, as of May 2024, most of the country’s thermal and hydro power plants have been either destroyed or heavily damaged by Russian missiles. 

In addition, Ukraine has faced significant logistical constraints since the beginning of the war. Initially, the Russian blockade of Black Sea ports made the export of agricultural and metallurgical goods by sea impossible. During 2023 and 2024 the blockade of the border with Poland created a major obstruction for trade with the EU and transit through European ports. Starting in September 2023, Ukraine managed to restore commodity exports through its Black Sea ports, predominantly through successful military operations. 

In the meantime, constant Russian ballistic missile strikes are currently targeting the ports in the Odessa region, aiming to destroy Ukraine’s civilian logistics infrastructure. Overall, destruction in the energy sector and limited logistics capabilities will remain the major threats to the economic recovery of Ukraine in the near future.

The preparation of Ukraine’s economy for EU membership will heavily depend on the security situation. And Ukraine will need EU support to prepare its economy, which may amount to 0.13 percent of the EU’s GDP, according to estimates published by the Bruegel think tank. This is indeed a significant figure, yet it can be potentially optimized through the use of additional external financial assets for Ukraine’s economic recovery. Then again, a failure to enable Ukraine’s security would create a risk of military-caused devastation for the EU’s own economy.

Implementation of EU Acquis

Since the entry into force of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement (AA) in 2016, Ukraine has started implementing EU acquis into national legislation. During this period, Ukraine has achieved the following major milestones:

  • Implemented reforms in the electricity markets and synchronized its power system with ENTSO-E;
  • Established a transparent system for public procurement;
  • Undertook decentralization reforms enhancing the authority of local governments;
  • Executed reforms in market surveillance and implemented a majority of EU technical regulations outlined in the AA;  
  • Initiated corporate governance reform;
  • Acceded to the Convention on the Common Transit Procedure (NCTS);
  • Adopted a new media law.
    (The last one was a real gamechanger.)

Ukraine has achieved tangible progress in the adaptation of EU acquis in sanitary and phytosanitary measures, social policy, telecommunications, consumer protection, and so on. As of the beginning of 2023, Ukraine had implemented 55 percent of all the commitments under the AA, according to a study by the Ukrainian Centre for European Policy (UCEP) and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

After the initial period of “quick wins,” the pace of the implementation of the AA has somewhat slowed down in recent years. This is probably because many outstanding Ukrainian obligations require comprehensive structural reforms, which can only be implemented through effective coordination among numerous governmental authorities, responsive leadership, and strong political will at the highest leadership level (all of these may not be guaranteed in practice). Also, as the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement did not anticipate the possibility of EU membership for Ukraine, there was not enough incentive to pursue these reforms. 

Now, Ukraine still needs to proceed with the implementation of EU acquis under the AA. However, as the prospect for EU membership is now clearly defined, we can expect greater progress in completing this process.

An Ambitious Goal

It should be stressed that preparation for EU membership is a much more ambitious goal than AA implementation. There are approximately 550 EU acts that need to be implemented under the AA, according to UCEP analysts. Contrast that with the number of EU acts that need to be implemented for membership, which stands at approximately 3,000, according to the government’s self-screening. 

One of the major challenges for EU acquis implementation is the lack of public service capacity. The ongoing war presents huge challenges for the Ukrainian authorities. 

The substantial outflow of women to Western countries, particularly skilled professionals with specialized industry expertise, was a common issue for public authorities at the beginning of the war. In addition, many male public servants were called up for military duty. Budget constraints (financing defense is an obvious priority) resulted in a decrease in public servants’ remuneration, triggering another wave of staff departures.

All of these difficulties are accompanied by a low level of familiarity among civil servants with EU law, which they have to implement in the coming years: Only about 60 percent are familiar with the EU acts they need to deal with in their work. The EU and other organizations are working to help the Ukrainian government. They provide training for public servants and run projects to assist the Ukrainian authorities in EU acquis implementation. Despite the support, however, Ukraine needs systemic solutions, such as public service reform, to attract professionals to the sector and stop the outflow of qualified personnel.

The other challenge in the implementation of EU acquis will be preparing businesses for the new rules. While gaining access to the EU market has motivated Ukrainian businesses to adjust their products to meet EU standards, further adaptation might involve considerable costs and time. Among the most challenging chapters among EU acquis are Chapter 27 (Environment), Chapter 14 (Transport policy), and Chapter 11 (Agriculture and rural development), in particular requirements in reference to fertilizers, plant protection tools, and the traceability of agrarian products. For Ukrainian small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which are limited both in financial and organizational resources, this will prove a difficult process.

On the Path to Membership

Ukrainians are highly motivated to join the EU and have demonstrated steady progress in conducting reforms even during wartime. The EU’s influence on Ukraine’s reforms when it comes to the rule of law, anticorruption efforts, and human rights protection has been substantial. Furthermore, businesses have already begun adapting to EU standards in preparation for accessing the EU single market.

As Ukraine progresses toward full-fledged membership, significant challenges lie ahead, including the implementation of numerous EU acts and addressing issues such as the lack of public service capacity and awareness of EU law among civil servants. 

However, the ultimate challenge for Ukrainian European integration will be navigating the complexities of implementing EU le­gislation amidst the ongoing war.

NB. This article is an extract from IP SPECIAL "Rebuilding Ukraine," published to coincide with the Ukraine Recovery Conference 2024 which takes places in Berlin on June 11-12. The whole issue is available for download here.

Oleksandra Bulana is an analyst at the Ukrainian Centre for European Policy (UCEP) in Kyiv.