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Navigating Complex Realities: Assessing the EU’s Contribution to Institutional Change in Ukraine


Since the 1993 Maastricht Treaty, the promotion of democracy is an explicit foreign policy goal of the EU. Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, the European Union (EU) therefore embarked on a mission to extend its democratic values beyond its Eastern borders. The influence of external actors has been generally described in the literature as being potentially transformative. In the case of the EU’s new member states, the Union played a crucial role in their transformation process.

The ideas of democracy and rule of law that were coupled to the membership, as outlined in the Copenhagen Criteria, were a dominating theme in this process. However, the EU tried to promote its values also to countries without, until very recently, a direct accession perspective, including Ukraine. In these cases, the direct relation between compliance and reward was much less pronounced. Whilst many attempts have been made at interpreting the outcomes of the EU’s democracy promotion efforts in the non-accession context, few academically sound explanations were produced.

My study attempted to bridge this gap by identifying the shortcomings of past academic approaches to institutional outcomes in Ukraine. It then established a framework to analyse these processes and to explain outcomes. Its findings help scholars and policy makers to understand the dynamics and considerations at play as well as allow to distinguish the factors that are necessary to prospectively overcome obstacles to a strong partnership between EU and Ukraine on the way to the latter’s accession into the Union.

Corruption as a proxy for institutions quality

This study focuses on anti-corruption reforms since corruption, defined as the misuse of public office for private gain, is identified in the academic literature as a good proxy measure for the quality of both political and economic institutions. It also constitutes one of the main reasons for elite’s resistance against democratization processes. This stems from the fact that elites in not fully democratic regimes derive much of their income from a preferential access to political and economic resources.

Ukraine is a telling example of that, as the country was locked in a state of hybridity since its early post-Soviet days. The system was characterized by formal democratic institutions and a relatively high degree of internal competition, which differed from authoritarian countries like Russia. However, simultaneously, informal mechanisms undermined many provisions of the formal democratic systems and corruption was the main modus operandi within it. Different attempts to dismantle the hybrid system before the large-scale invasion of 2022, such as during the democratic pushes in 2005 and 2014 as well as the authoritarian push by Yanukovych between 2010 and 2014 largely failed. The academic literature has rightly attributed this state of hybridity to the dominance of corruption and the subsequent benefits that elites derive from it as well as the simultaneous high level of competition between different elite groups. Some scholars have therefore also spoken of “pluralism by default” in the case of Ukraine.

The conditionality of the EU support

However, there is less clarity with respect to the role of external actors. The consideration of this factor for the policy outcomes in Ukraine enjoyed some attention in the political literature. Still, none of the existent studies could dissect the EU’s internal workings with respect to these outcomes and therefore establish how and why this potentially transformative impact is missing. Rather, studies make generally at most the distinction between the EU as an organization and its member states, which is known under the notion of “multi-level governance”, assessing the coherence among these actors. On the other hand, the EU as an organization was mostly treated as a unified actor that formulated and monitored policies towards a non-member state. The outcome of this grand policy, which in the case of democracy promotion encompasses a variety of many smaller policies itself, was then seen as either explained by the coherence of this policy over time, domestic factors, or the interplay with other external actors, such as Russia.

From an analytical perspective, studies on the role of the EU in political economy outcomes in Ukraine were descriptive and/or interpretative. That is, they described and interpreted the development of policies and the system at large over time, attributing outcomes to the three potential reasons mentioned above, namely a lack of either policy coherence or domestic will as well as Russia’s influence. Importantly, scholars also mostly interpreted reform outcomes as failure or success according to their own perception or in reference to strategic EU documents, such as the Association Agreements. With respect to the quality of institutions these, however, only outline an end goal and not intermediate milestones, making it impossible to objectively assess the track record of an ongoing process. Correspondingly, these studies also largely failed to provide evidence and causal explanations for why the EU failed to use its leverage to induce change when a moment of opportunity for this appeared. That is important, as a large share of support to Ukraine was factually coupled to conditionalities, meaning that it was bound to the achievement of certain reforms.

Research Strategy: how does the EU formulate its conditionality

To bridge this gap, this work departed from two identified shortcomings in the literature. First, it departed from the interpretative approach of attributing failure and success to observable outcomes. Instead, it sought to identify the understanding of failure and success within the EU on different levels. This leads to the second novelty: this work departed from the unified actor approach prevalent in this field of study and focused instead on the internal workings of the EU as an organization. By using both paths simultaneously, that is, identifying the internal processes within the EU and perceptions of its actors on different levels, this study advanced the understanding of the entire policy advice supply chain. Through this, it also sought to explain outcomes, as only by establishing the actual information and decision flows within the EU can a central external factor impacting reforms in Ukraine be understood.

To achieve its designated aim, this study conducted a discourse analysis, focusing primarily on macro-financial assistance provision, the main conditionality mechanism. To begin with, the information and work flow process of the EU with respect to reforms falling under this mechanism in Ukraine was established. This included a mapping of relevant actors for the sake of designating transmission channels and potential gate-keepers. Through this, this study revealed the variety of actors engaged in promoting reforms on the EU side: technical staff was concentrated in Kyiv and worked in constant exchange with Ukrainian policy makers as well as civil society representatives. More high-level, political actors were mostly concentrated in the relevant directorate (ECFIN) of the Commission in Brussels.

Following this mapping, the author directly reached out to people working on the technical and more political level in the Commission as well as other relevant EU agencies. This was complemented by representatives from the Ukrainian civil society as well as the Ukrainian government and EU member states representatives working on reforms in Ukraine. The presence of these latter actors in the sample was to allow an additional insider view on these processes as to correct potentially overly subjective accounts. In total, 12 representatives were interviewed over the course of four months. The data collection period and a corresponding research stay in Kyiv was halted halfway through due to the large-scale invasion of Russia.

Nevertheless, the collected evidence allowed for an insightful analysis of the above mentioned processes and to distil important insights as to improve scholar’s understanding of political economy outcomes in Ukraine. This data collection was complemented by the analysis of official documents that were used to establish the official narrative applied by the EU and to potentially contrast it with the internal perceptions of actors responsible for its formulation to filter out the relevant factors for this divergence.

Findings: unclear and changing expectations undermine the results

The analysis revealed a divergence between the personal perception of reform outcomes by actors on various levels with the official narrative of the EU. This even included actors having a gatekeeping role, that is, actors being formally responsible for the content of documents portraying this official narrative. In general, these actors’ personal assessment of anti-corruption reforms was much less positive than the one in public EU documents. One EU adviser used the metaphor of a zoo to demonstrate how he/she perceived the EU’s official narrative regarding these reforms – a mere exercise to showcase some progress that, however, does not really deliver any factual results. This touched upon a general debate among actors, in which the question was posed of what actually constitutes progress – whether it is the sole existence of anti-corruption institutions or whether it is the effectiveness of these institutions. And if it was the latter – how this effectiveness was to be measured? As the analysis of official documents revealed, the lack of clear and defined yardsticks is also present on the formal level and it therefore mirrors the problems of internal coherence of EU actors.

Another central finding was the differing geopolitical perception among actors of various levels and even within these levels. Particularly the role of Russia was shown to be understood by various actors either through a “realist” or an “idealist” perspective. EU representatives with “realist” understanding see Russia as a major obstacle to reform and a reason to be particularly soft in their public signalling and the associated calling out of reform imitation. They see a risk in a harsh verdict of reform outcomes as this could potentially spur Russian propaganda, give backwind to pro-Russian forces, and through this destabilize Ukraine. As such, these actors have a realist perspective from the geopolitical lens but not on reforms. Actors with an idealist perspective, on the other hand, argue for the opposite approach: they see internal reform success as perhaps the biggest asset in the fight against Russia in the long-term. Through this, they support a realistic, potentially harsh public assessment of anti-corruption reforms for the sake of long-term development prospects.

By establishing these differences along the policy advice supply chain, this article demonstrates that a persistent realist perspective on Russia dominated in the EU bureaucracy, particularly on higher levels with a gatekeeping function. This explains the soft public signals sent out by the EU in face of reform shortcomings. This article underscores the consequences of such a modus operandi, namely the weak execution of the EU’s conditionality mechanism, arguably the central instrument to promote reforms in countries without an accession perspective. Taken in its entirety, the article therefore evidences the weakness of the external democracy promotion channel in the Ukrainian case and explains an important why of the reform outcome puzzle. In other words, the EU did not push for reform too much in order not to induce Ukrainian government’s turn to Russia and not to provide the food for Russian propaganda narrative of “Ukraine as a failed state”.

Conclusions and recommendations: honesty is the best policy

The article’s insights not only have an academic relevance from the perspective of contributing to a better scholarly understanding of past processes, but also help in formulating policy recommendations in the present. They are particularly relevant ahead of the likely December 2023 decision on the commencement of accession negotiations with Ukraine. As ongoing negotiation processes show, the sole fact of beginning them does not provide any guarantee of a positive outcome. On the contrary, building up hopes in the societies of accession countries that are later not fulfilled can even spur eurosceptic tendencies as has now become visible in some cases. This pivotal moment therefore offers an opportunity for the EU to reshape its approach and policies towards Ukraine that should not be missed, as it could otherwise have the opposite effect.

This reveals a dilemma which EU policymakers face today: whilst they finally can offer Ukraine a formal accession perspective, and through this the potential transformative role that this process entails, this requires a deep overhaul of the political economy system of Ukraine, particularly in the sphere of good governance. Yet, under the conditions of war, logically, the concentration of power is increased and the degree of transparency decreased. Already this makes it difficult to assess reforms in this domain, which are by default hard to assess objectively. Additionally, in the information war that the Kremlin is waging against Ukraine, the EU’s criticism of potential reform shortcomings will be fuel to the Russian propaganda machine. Corruption plays an important role in the Kremlin’s narrative over Ukraine, it was even mentioned on February 21 in Putin’s infamous speech when he recognized the so-called “people’s republics”.

Whilst the argument of trying to avoid fueling Russian propaganda has some validity, it only does so from a short-term perspective. Because it would effectively mean becoming a victim of short-term thinking and falling back into a realist perspective in which the presence of Russia has a negative influence on reforms in Ukraine. Thinking about the long-term and considering the substantial amount of financial aid that is and will continue flowing to Ukraine, outstanding reforms should be pushed as quickly as possible with as strong as necessary rigour, also in the official narratives that Western partners send out. Only by being realistic about reforms and potential shortcomings, that is, openly calling out reform imitations, can they bring an ideal outcome, which would mean a true democratic breakthrough.

For this, as the analysis revealed, the approach that policymakers in Brussels take vis-à-vis Kyiv and the perception that they have of Moscow must change. Volodymyr Zelensky said that “no one in the West is afraid of Russia anymore and never will be”. These words should be seen as an imperative for the official narrative of Western policymakers towards Ukraine as to realize the transformative potential that Western influence can have. Then, by pushing for those necessary reforms as soon as possible without being afraid of Moscow’s reaction, the long-term pitfall of becoming a victim of the high hopes that accession negotiations created can be avoided.


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