Ukraine sets out on long path to EU membership

Warsaw, Poland — Ukrainian officials are embracing what will be a detailed and tortuous process of negotiations following the official opening of EU accession talks this week, saying they have already made major strides toward qualifying for a status that would cement their place in Western Europe.

While the process that began Tuesday at a ministerial-level meeting in Luxembourg can take years or even decades, the Kyiv government has declared its commitment to work diligently to meet the bloc’s exacting standards in areas ranging from agricultural policy to human rights.

This process “is not something to which Ukraine has come unprepared,” said Ukrainian legislator Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, a former vice-prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, in an interview with VOA.

She said the country has undergone significant transformation under an association agreement concluded with the EU in 2017, especially in the process of securing a visa-free regime.

Ukraine was formally approved as a candidate for EU membership in June 2022, just months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of the country. Moldova, which was approved as an EU candidate at about the same time as Ukraine, also began accession talks on Tuesday.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen praised Ukraine for its efforts to date in an address to the Ukrainian parliament in November 2023, saying that the country has “made great strides, much greater than anyone expected from a country at war.”

Klympush-Tsintsadze emphasized the need for consolidated efforts from all sectors of society and political factions if Ukraine is to continue its progress toward EU membership.

“It will be difficult without a real change in the civil service and public administration of Ukraine, without the engagement of all the possibilities of civil society, different political parties, and stakeholders, and having a very honest conversation with society about some of the very difficult steps,” she said.

Those steps require Ukraine, like any membership candidate, to bring its laws and standards into line with those of the EU in 35 policy areas, known as chapters, ranging from the free movement of goods through fisheries, taxation, energy and the environment to judicial rights and security.

Each of the chapters must be negotiated to the satisfaction of all 27 existing EU members, making for a complex and drawn-out process.

Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Economy Tatiana Berezhna echoed her colleague’s sentiments about Ukraine’s readiness for the long road ahead. She noted in an interview with VOA that Ukraine “has already managed to screen the implementation of European legislation.”

Berezhna, who is responsible for negotiating the chapters on employment, social issues, and the free movement of workers, stated that since the application, Ukraine has done its homework and is now “ready to proceed with negotiations.”

Already this year, Ukrainian officials have participated in several explanatory sessions with representatives of the European Commission.

“Now that the negotiations have started, we will have a series of meetings on all the clusters of legislation,” Berezhna said. “We understand that it’s a long process; however, we are eager to reunite with our European family.”

Wojciech Przybylski, the head of a policy forecasting unit at the Warsaw-based think tank Visegrad Insight, compared the path ahead for Ukraine to that of Poland, which completed its EU membership negotiations in just five years.

He pointed out that the negotiations for Ukraine’s membership opened just before Hungary, which opposes Ukraine’s bid for admission and further EU enlargement generally, takes the helm of the EU for the next six months.

“We know there will be a slowdown or a pause in the cycle, but this will come back as a topic under the Polish EU presidency in January,” said Przybylski, who believes the EU must be enlarged if it is to survive and thrive.

“Fortunately, right now, there is a political momentum building up. We need to grow this political support and the network of those who will politically sponsor enlargement.”

With Ukraine as ground zero in Europe’s biggest armed conflict since World War II,  

Przybylski said he sees enlargement as “the peace project in Europe and the EU as an instrument of peacebuilding in Europe.”

EU membership for Ukraine, he added, will be a key component of that process.

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