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Victory in the battle for the EU: seven lessons and challenges


December 14, 2023 will undoubtedly be mentioned in the annals of modern history of Ukraine along with obtaining the status of a candidate country for joining the European Union and the conclusion of the Association Agreement, as well as the opening of EU borders for Ukrainians thanks to visa-free travel.

The “green light” given by the European Council to start the opening negotiations with Ukraine became a new starting point both in the process of gaining membership and in the comprehensive reform of our state in accordance with the highest EU standards.

In fact, we all witnessed a Christmas miracle. After all, complex obstacles and skeptical statements and forecasts on the eve and during the meeting gave little cause for optimism. It even got to the point that in political and expert circles, with sadness, political figures outlined “plans B, D, …” and even looked at the political horizons of the second half – the end of 2024. Therefore, the sudden positive statement of the President of the European Council Charles Michel became a super pleasant and incredibly welcome surprise.

The latest Ukrainian sociological polls clearly record support for Ukraine’s membership in the EU at the level of about 80%. Important support for Ukraine’s membership in the European Union is also evidenced in Europe, where sociological studies firmly indicate its average level of over 60%. Such a huge European public demand for success should be a guarantee of an easy and predictable result. However, in reality, everything turned out to be much more difficult and more nervous.

The path to this symbolic geopolitical solution required each participant to find bold creative steps and sensitive compromises. Even from the key opponent of Ukraine, Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán, who suddenly wanted to “drink coffee”.

Without exaggeration, the entire democratic world sincerely cheered for the success of Ukraine. And this became a powerful signal of international support and solidarity, which disproved the “myth of being tired of Ukraine” and strengthened the spirit of each of us, and first of all, Ukrainian heroes at the front.

In the Brussels house called “Europe”, they fully understood that the struggle was not only and not so much for the beginning of the next introductory negotiations with one of the ten post-graduate candidates for EU membership.

Not only Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia or the countries of the Western Balkans, the mentions of which found a place in the conclusions of the meeting of the European Council, drew attention to the capital of the European Union this evening.

For EU citizens, this summit was about the determination of the European Union, about the presence of a strategic vision and the leaders’ awareness of responsibility for the future of the continent, about security, stability and commitment to common democratic values. It was about the ability to be not only in a state of “deaf defense” against external influence and blackmail, but also to launch a geopolitical “counteroffensive”. In fact, it was a summit about the future fate and power of a united Europe.

For the Western allies of the EU, primarily the USA and Great Britain, the European Council has become an indicator of the unity of the European Union, the ability to advance geopolitical interests and bear responsibility for political promises and weighty decisions. It is not for nothing that many leaders of the EU member states at the summit spoke about the significant impact of the decisions on the further course of events in Washington, in particular, regarding the allocation of additional financial and military aid to Ukraine. Therefore, a positive decision of the European Council will obviously strengthen the position of “healthy” forces in the Congress in the matter of supporting our state. EU leaders should be happy that, contrary to established opinion, today it is Brussels that influences and imposes the rules of the game on Washington, and not the other way around. And this is another no less important geopolitical conclusion of the December EU summit.

For the Putin regime and his supporters of this regime, the “Ukrainian negotiation issue” was an important element of the aggressive campaign both against Ukraine and against the united Europe. Therefore, “green”, “red” and even “yellow” light from EU leaders would have a significant long-term impact on the Kremlin’s approaches to war against our country and the Western world. The aggressor played systematically, comprehensively and cynically. It would be primitive to believe that the Kremlin was counting only on Hungarian veto. It’s not true. In this scheme, they had to play their destructive role and a difficult situation on the front, and missile shelling on the day of the meeting, and the “strange” coincidence in time with the Putin press conference, and transport blockades at the borders of Ukraine with neighboring states. In addition, the role in this scheme also had the provocation of misunderstandings between the leadership of Ukraine and individual EU leaders (including Viktor Orbán). And the use of “useful idiots” in the Ukrainian authorities to deteriorate internal unity in Ukraine and to provoke split along the power of the authorities – the opposition and the authorities – army also took place in the Kremlin scheme.

Thanks to joint efforts and internal consolidation, this Russian diplomatic offensive failed. But we must be vigilant, because, as in the battlefield, the aggressor draws conclusions from the mistakes and quickly adapts to the situation, restoring offensive actions.

Ukraine’s membership in the European Union, as in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), is a strategic defeat of the Putin’s Neo-imperial project. Russia will do everything in its power to prevent it.

Therefore, the course and results of the European Council should not be a reason for a “well-deserved rest”, but an incentive for objective conclusions and work on mistakes.

First, against the backdrop of existential challenges of the united Europe in Brussels, we have a long time and have to admit that we have confidently chosen a strategy for the use of the most powerful tool for influence and the formation of new regional realities, namely, this is the expansion of the European Union. The EU consciously goes to the creation of conditions for a new wave of expansion, which, according to the plan of European strategists, should eliminate the Kremlin’s imperial ambitions in the strategic perspective. Brussels Bureaucracy is complex and inert. However, when a clearly defined goal and strategic vision prevails in bureaucratic offices, it is extremely difficult to stop this “train”.

Secondly, the euphoria of the moment should not blind and deprive Kyiv of prudence and responsibility. A purely bureaucratic view of the decision on the status of a candidate country for EU membership was given to Ukraine fairly quickly. Today, in the context of the Euro Council, it became apparent that the myth of the so-called rapid regime of entry into the European Union has dispelled. As evidenced by the vast majority of EU leaders’ comments, the emphasis is not in pace and timing, but on merit. The path to EU membership is not a morning jog, but an exhausting struggle. In which the candidate is expected not to make empty speeches and promises, but to adopt effective and well-planned systematic decisions and actions, which will be carefully analyzed not only by experts of the European Commission, but also by politicians in each of the European capitals. Our country will have to do a lot of “homework”. We must responsibly prepare for the successful completion of this “European integration marathon” Communication strategy also needs appropriate changes. After all, populist and unrealistic statements of government representatives not only distort reality and give rise to inflated expectations in Ukrainian society, but also annoy our partners. And the most dangerous, unfulfilled overestimated expectations create a convenient background for various psychological operations of the aggressor (PSYOP) and the creation of disputes with Ukrainian society from the inside.

Third, the task of Ukrainian diplomacy is to promote the formation of the consensus of the EU Member States at each stage of negotiation. Therefore, work should be done not only with the European Commission, but also with every European capital.

At the same time, narrowing the challenge to the Hungarian factor would be short-sighted, as the situation is much more complicated. Every day, the positions of Slovak skeptics (especially in the context of the presidential election next year) become stronger, Wilders factor appeared in the Netherlands, and vigilance should be maintained in the Austrian direction. The year of numerous elections will soon come that will take place not only in individual European countries, but also in all European countries, which can lead to changes in governments and new timetable in the European Parliament. Moreover, with the progress of negotiations and opening new chapters, new and new issues will raise that will provoke tension even with our closest friends. After all, international relations are guided primarily by their own national interests. That is why it is important for us today to calculate such points and possible options to find mutually acceptable solutions.

Fourthly, the “magic of the diplomacy of emotions”, which used to give results, has practically exhausted itself. The positive decision of the European Council became possible thanks to the coincidence of the geopolitical interests of the European Union with the substantive work of the Ukrainian side to implement the recommendations of the European Commission. Instead, a continuous wave of insults and accusations from the official Kyiv against the Hungarian leadership almost led to a disaster. The emotional short exchange of lines between Zelenskyy and Viktor Orbán in Buenos Aires was just another example of what not to do. No wonder, feeling phantom pain from the Vilnius NATO summit and anticipating an emotional personal attack by the Prime Minister of Hungary, which would lead the discussion to the dimension of personal grudges, the President of Ukraine was recommended to refrain from visiting Brussels. This case should be seriously considered.

Fifth, Ukraine needs to organize systematic, well-thought-out and comprehensive work to minimize the “Hungarian challenge” using all possible means of communication. Hungary will not stop being our neighbor and will remain one of the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states, on whose position the adoption of key strategic decisions regarding our European and Euro-Atlantic integration will depend. Therefore, politics, rhetoric, and approaches should be built so that Ukraine’s relations with Hungary become better than Budapest’s relations with Moscow. And this should be started as soon as possible, since the issue of the mechanism for supporting Ukraine in the amount of 50 billion euros until 2027 remains blocked. Let’s not forget that Budapest’s consent will be needed for the adoption of the so-called negotiation framework in March next year, and for the opening and closing of negotiation chapters. In general, as Viktor Orbán directly warns, Hungary has “75 veto rights” before Ukraine’s membership in the EU. The factor of Hungary’s presidency of the European Council from July 1, 2024 should also be taken into account.

Sixth, as the modern history of Ukraine shows, the most important task will remain not to provide skeptics with arguments to slow down our progress in the EU. Internal unity, real reforms, and the development of effective institutions should remain the axioms here.

And finally: among the important factors that will influence the prospects and pace of Ukraine’s accession to the European Union, there remains the reform of the EU itself.

The criterion of the EU’s ability to function in the conditions of Ukraine’s membership will have no less importance and impact on the final decision on accession than Ukraine’s achievement of the Copenhagen criteria.

Already today, skeptics in EU member states began to actively use arguments regarding the “destructive impact of Ukraine’s membership” on European farmers and industry, European regions, social policy and employment, etc. In particular, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán actively used these theses in an information campaign in Hungary and during a visit to France. And such rhetoric will objectively only intensify.

Therefore, it is in the interests of Ukraine to intensify the reform of EU policies in sensitive sectors for our country, as well as to launch a broad information and clarification campaign to minimize the concerns of both partners and business associations.

In view of this, one more important decision of the European Council is worthy of attention – on the preparation of a road map for the internal reform of the EU by the summer of 2024.

What’s next?

The decision of the European Council of December 14, 2023 removed the political obstacles to the launch of the technical bureaucratic procedures necessary for the actual start of the accession negotiations. Formally, we have an “open door” to negotiations, but they have not yet begun.

The decision enables the European Commission to launch the technical process of assessing Ukrainian legislation for compliance with EU legislation (the so-called screening) and the preparation of the draft “negotiation framework” (directive).

In March 2024, subject to Ukraine’s proper implementation of the European Commission’s recommendations of November 8, 2023, the EU Council must approve the “negotiation framework” by consensus.

And in view of this, the Ukrainian side should ensure not only the full and proper implementation of the specified recommendations, but also to prevent the emergence of new problems, in particular in the areas of the fight against corruption, the rule of law or the rights of national minorities. This will be closely monitored by the relevant EU Commissioner for Hungary, Olivér Várhelyi.

The December 14 decision did not establish any automaticity regarding any further steps and stages of the negotiation process.

This means that Brussels will continue to carefully evaluate every step in Ukraine’s rapprochement with the European Union. And each of these steps, including the opening and closing of each of the 35 negotiating chapters, completing the negotiations and approval of the entry agreement, will require new consensus decisions.

In order to succeed at each of these stages, it is not necessary to rely on such mythical things as “good fortune” and “charisma” of the leadership of the state, or “charming coffee” and ” life hacks”, or “friends in high EU offices, who will solve all problems for you. “It is necessary to combine the efforts of all democratic political forces, representatives of the expert environment, civil society and business associations to ensure systematic and competent work on promoting the negotiation process and achieving criteria for EU membership, and therefore our joint victory.


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