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European Commission recommends initiating EU accession talks with Ukraine: What's next

European Commission recommends initiating EU accession talks with Ukraine: What's next President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Vitalii Nosach, RBC-Ukraine)

Ukraine has come one step closer to joining the European Union. Today, the European Commission officially recommended the member states to start negotiations with Kyiv.

RBC-Ukraine provides details about the procedure and when the negotiations may start.

The following sources were used to prepare the story: statements from President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine Olha Stefanishyna, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as well as a report on Ukraine and data on the European Commission's website.

The report and recommendation: Main points

As expected, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, presenting the report on Ukraine, announced the recommendation to the EU member states to start accession negotiations. According to her, the country has implemented 90% of the necessary reforms, but there is still work to be done.

"The main progress has been achieved in the field of constitutional justice, the reform of the High Council of Justice selection, anti-corruption programs, fighting money laundering, important measures to control oligarchs, and the adoption of the media law and issues related to national minorities," she noted.

A detailed report is published on the EC website. RBC-Ukraine has already provided key findings of the report, and what still needs to be done for EU accession.

In short, Ukraine needs to complete decentralization reform, establish a new administrative court, ensure a strong disciplinary system for prosecutors, make progress in implementing ECHR decisions, increase efforts to investigate high-profile corruption cases, increase the staff of NABU and SAPO (agencies to fight corruption), and implement Venice Commission recommendations on national minorities, among other things.

The main outcome is that the European Council has recommended starting negotiations with Ukraine on its accession. The Commission will continue to monitor progress and compliance with conditions and is expected to provide a relevant report by March 2024.

As von der Leyen noted, Ukraine is obliged to continue progressing on the mentioned reforms before negotiations begin. Russian aggression and military actions must not be an obstacle to the negotiations.

When negotiations can start

Not before December, for sure. The President of the European Commission did not specify the exact timing. But it's important to understand that this body has only provided recommendations to the European Council, which may also set additional conditions.

The European Council is the highest political body of the EU, consisting of the presidents and prime ministers of member countries. In fact, European leaders will make the decision to start negotiations with Ukraine.

As Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Olha Stefanishyna stated, the final decision of the European Council is expected at the summit on December 14.

"It's not a fact that the leaders will support the vision of the European Commission this way. In addition, some of these tasks need to be adopted in the near future. I think that we will see the final decision on December 14. And only after that, we will determine the next steps," she added.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also hopes for December.

"Today, the history of Ukraine and the whole of Europe took a significant step forward - the European Commission has recommended starting membership negotiations with Ukraine. This is a clear positive outcome. Despite all the challenges, we are moving forward, and in December, we are expecting a political decision from the European Council," he stated in his address.

According to Zelenskyy, Ukrainians have earned EU membership through their commitment to European values and by implementing promises while developing state institutions during a full-scale war.

The recommendation from the European Commission has already received a response from the German government. According to their official spokesperson, they will examine the report thoroughly, and the start of negotiations will depend on how successfully Ukraine implements the reforms and outstanding criteria.

How the EU accession talks take place

Today's decision by the European Commission followed the homework that Ukraine received in June 2022 along with its candidate status. This homework concerned judicial reform, the appointment of anti-corruption agency leadership, media laws, national minorities, and other issues. The condition on oligarchs was later removed from the agenda, and Ukraine plans to launch a registry after the war.

As the practice shows, the negotiation and accession process can be lengthy. For example, the most recent EU accession was Croatia. It applied for membership in 2003, gained candidate status in a year, and negotiations began in the fall of 2005. They were formally concluded in October 2006, but it was only in 2009 that Slovenia removed its final objections, agreeing to resolve territorial issues through mediators. Croatia became an EU member on July 1, 2013.

Negotiations take the form of bilateral conferences between EU members and the candidate country. Various issues are discussed, including regional policy, transport, energy, taxation, justice and internal affairs, financial matters, agriculture, and more.

During this time, Ukraine must align its legislation with European standards by implementing the acquis communautaire, a set of 35 points that all member countries must adhere to. In total, around 30,000 EU rules and standards need to be implemented. Ukraine started a legislative alignment review with the EU in the spring, and it is known that 80% of the Association Agreement with the EU has already been implemented.

Part of the negotiation process will involve resolving bilateral issues. Delays could arise because of problems such as grain exports to Poland or the long-standing issue of national minorities, raised from time to time by Hungary.

The negotiation results will be incorporated into the draft EU accession agreement for Ukraine. This agreement must then receive approval from the EU Council and the European Parliament. Afterward, all EU member countries will sign the accession treaty at a conference.

An important point is that in early 2020, the EU changed the negotiation process. While previously, launching the process had to lead to the acceptance of a new member, now Brussels has the right to suspend or restart negotiations on specific issues in case of unsatisfactory results.

When Ukraine can join the EU

The timing will depend on the positions of each EU member state and the political will for enlargement. There should be no problem with the latter, as the EU plans to welcome up to 9 new members by 2030. Speaking about Ukraine, the head of the European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, recently suggested that the process could be faster than usual.

RBC-Ukraine sources within EU bodies admit that Ukraine's accession in 2024 or 2025 is unrealistic because of the extensive procedures involved. However, given the unique circumstances, they acknowledge that Kyiv may potentially undergo the process faster than Eastern European countries did.

Nevertheless, compromises will have to be sought with many particular countries. As sources told RBC-Ukraine, last year, Hungary did not block candidate status, delaying the Hungarian minority issue in Zakarpattia until the negotiation phase.

Even if negotiations proceed quickly, the ratification of the accession treaty by all EU members will follow. This process has no clear timeframes and may also face challenges.

Ukraine's path toward the EU

Ukraine has expressed its desire to join the European Union for many years. The signing of the Association Agreement was initially planned for November 2013, but then-President Viktor Yanukovych changed course under Russian leverage, leading to the Euromaidan protests and his removal from power.

The Agreement was signed in June 2014 when Russia had already occupied Crimea and launched an aggressive war in the Donbas. A free trade zone was established on September 1, 2017. Since then, Ukraine has secured support from its partners on the path to the EU, enshrined the relevant course in the Constitution, and submitted its application for EU membership following the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022.

On June 17, 2022, the European Commission recommended granting Ukraine candidate status, along with setting seven conditions. The same month, the EU Council approved candidate status with a list of conditions.