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And then, there will be December. How Ursula von der Leyen opened the EU door to Kyiv and what was said behind that door – reportage from Brussels


The European Commission has effectively invited Ukraine to EU accession negotiations “without any conditions”, but still expects Kyiv to implement four reforms in the near future.

It is now ten years ago that the protests on Maidan started,” said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and after a small pause, continued. “Maidan protests where people were shot because they wrapped themselves in a European flag.”

In the beginning of November, the head of the European Commission remembered the events of 2013 in Kyiv, standing with EU Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi in front of dozens of journalists in the Berlaymont building, the headquarters of the EU’s executive body in Brussels.

Just a few seconds after a short recollection of events, she announced the long-awaited decision for Ukraine.

Today is a historic day because the European Commission recommends the Council to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova,” continued von der Leyen.

The Ukrainian government knew that the decision of the European Commission would be positive even before the official announcement. Four days prior, von der Leyen visited Kyiv, stating that the country made “great progress” on its path towards the EU and that the EU was impressed by the reforms Ukraine is “implementing in the midst of war.”

You’ve achieved great progress. Next week, we will confirm it, when the Commission presents its enlargement report,” the President of the European Commission stated then during the press conference with Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine’s capital.

The report, released on November 8, confirmed that progress in implementing reforms has indeed become the basis for the recommendation to start negotiations with Ukraine on EU accession. According to von der Leyen, Kyiv has completed more than 90% of the necessary steps provided last year when Ukraine received candidate status for EU membership.

As it turned out, the remaining 10%, although not being an obstacle for the Commission’s recommendation to start negotiations with Ukraine, served as a basis to announce additional conditions to Ukraine on its path towards the EU.

The four “buts”

After the European Commission recommended that negotiations with Ukraine begin, this decision must be approved by the European Council, one of the legislative bodies of the EU, which comprises the heads of the 27 member states. The approval must be consensus, the agreement of all. The meeting of this body is scheduled for mid-December.

If the European Council approves the European Commission’s recommendation, negotiations on accession will be considered to have begun, at least their technical component.

However, the next stage is not so simple. The European Commission is asking Ukraine to finalize four more reforms related to the fight against corruption, limiting the influence of oligarchs on legislative institutions, and protecting national minorities. The Commission expects that Ukraine will meet these conditions by March 24 next year. And only after that will the ‘negotiation frameworks” be approved, a substantive document within the framework of which the main negotiations on EU accession will be conducted.

As stated in the official report of the European Commission, the following four issues are expected to be resolved by Kyiv:

  1. Adoption of the law providing for an increase of the NABU staff to 1,000;
  2. Exclusion from the law on prevention of corruption of provisions that limit the powers of the National Agency for Corruption Prevention (NACP) to verify assets and property of declarants who have already been verified; and also, removal of the provision on the restriction of the NACP’s verification of property and assets acquired by declarants before joining public service;
  3. Adoption of a law on lobbying in accordance with the European standards within the framework of the “anti-oligarchic” action plan;
  4. Adoption of a law on the remaining recommendations of the Venice Commission dated June and October 2023, related to the law on national minorities, the state language, media, and education.

The European Commission also emphasized that “Ukraine needs to continue fighting against corruption by increasing the list of corruption cases and delivered verdicts.”

Non-conditional conditions

At the same time, Brussels officials consider that their recommendations on opening negotiations with Ukraine on EU accession have been proclaimed “without any conditions.” This opinion was voiced by one of the high-ranking officials of the European Commission on condition of anonymity to a group of journalists in the Berlaymont, which somewhat puzzled the press.

The proposal is absolutely clear: we recommend opening accession negotiations and that’s it,” he said, answering a question from one of the journalists who could not understand why the EC considers the decision unconditional if there are still conditions.

The official explained that the European Commission has proposed to “start with preparatory work,” which is necessary in order to open negotiations on Ukraine’s accession to the EU as soon as the European Council approves the EC’s recommendations at the summit on December 15.

In the evening of that same day [in December], I will send my teams to Kyiv to start working with the Ukrainians. We cannot waste time,” said the representative of the European Commission.

This means that the negotiations will be considered open in December.

At this stage, we proposed to the European Council to approve framework conditions for the negotiations,” explained the EC representative. “This will be an interim stage. We believe that the interim stage should be conditional by the completion of these reforms. But the [negotiation] process should start in December.”

Problematic Hungary

The issue of national minorities and language is one of the “problematic” issues Brussels is asking to resolve by March 2024.

Hungary has complaints about this issue and is rather active in voicing them. Hungary has even promised to block the start of negotiations with Ukraine on EU accession until Budapest’s demands regarding the language of education are met.

In theory, this country can veto the political decision of the European Council to open negotiations. Ukraine is already trying to resolve this issue: on November 8, Olha Stefanishyna, Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, said that Ukraine provided Hungary with a detailed roadmap on how to resolve the conflicting positions.

However, even after Stefanishyna’s statement, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said: Ukraine “will bring war to the European Union,” so it is not yet “suitable for EU membership.” Szijjártó also believes Ukraine has not fulfilled all the conditions set for EU membership. He specifically highlighted minority rights issues as being “glaringly” problematic.

While the European Commission does not consider the issue “glaring”, there is an agreement that it must be resolved.

A representative of the European Commission, speaking anonymously, stated that national minorities is an issue many candidate countries face. In such a case, “a balance needs to be found between the inalienable right of minorities to realize their cultural identity and live in their environment,” and their involvement in the life of the country and its institutions.

Therefore, the European Commission expects Ukraine to “find a balance” in order for minorities to receive education in their native language, and also to be able to use their native language in “certain official communications.”

No one is talking about the fact that all of them should receive education in only one of the languages,” said the EC official.

At the same time, he added that Ukraine will need to adapt the legislative base, also discussing it with national minorities. He also noted that Ukraine has already taken many steps in this direction.

Second, I know that in some circles, people are concerned about the rights of Russians to use the Russian language,” added the EC representative. “Let me be very clear: the use of the Russian language is not something the Commission will take into consideration.”

Future membership

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry stated that with this decision, the European Commission recognized the changes in the country. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba noted that when he remembers the Revolution of Dignity and all the years that have “led us to this moment”, he realizes that the “fight and sacrifices were not in vain.”

Our transformation has been recognized. Our dreams and hopes are becoming reality,” he said.

Commenting on the decision of the European Commission, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Ukraine has already prepared for the decision of the European Council on negotiations on EU membership in December, and has already begun to fulfil its part of the work.

The head of state added that the Ukrainian government understands what steps need to be taken after the decision of the European Council to bring the key goal closer, i.e., “the accession of our state to the EU.”

Almost nobody can predict the possible date of Ukraine’s full accession to the EU at the moment. Ambassador of the European Union to Ukraine Katarina Mathernova was the only one to try and give an approximate date. She said that 2030 is a realistic term for Ukraine’s joining the EU, provided that the appropriate pace of reforms is maintained.

At the same time, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell refused to comment on such timing in an interview with BBC. In response to the question of whether this is generally possible during the war, Borrell noted that it depends on how long the war will last.

Nobody knows this, but we will continue to support Ukraine until its victory. However, Cyprus became a member of the European Union, when part of its territory was occupied,” he said. “I am not trying to predict anything, and I am not saying that the Cyprus case is the same as Ukraine’s, not in the least. But I cannot dismiss the result of this probable process.”

Borrell believes that membership is the best and most important security obligation the EU can give Ukraine.


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