Why Germany should support Ukraine’s EU candidacy

Foto: ZUMA Wire /​​ Imago Images

The granting of candidate status does not mean accession: it is above all a recog­ni­tion of the progress Ukraine has made in reforms and a great symbolic gesture to a people who are protecting Europe from invasion.

There are two fronts in Ukraine – the external military front and the internal reformist front. And both are extremely important. Because to success­fully counter the external threat, you need to have a strong economy and strong insti­tu­tions, the absence of corrup­tion, and the rule of law. To this end, Ukraine must complete the reforms it launched in 2014, following the Revo­lu­tion of Dignity and the signing of the Asso­ci­a­tion Agreement with the EU.

Ukraine has already made consid­er­able progress against corrup­tion, within an inde­pen­dent National Anti-Corrup­tion Bureau and a Special­ized Anti-Corrup­tion Prosecutor’s Office. The Anti-Corrup­tion Court has already handed down dozens of verdicts in cases of high-level corrup­tion, and dozens of corrupt MPs, senior officials and judges are now serving time behind bars. Open registers and e‑declarations have made it virtually impos­sible to conceal illicit benefits. ProZorro’s e‑procurement system has already saved the state budget billions, and this expe­ri­ence is being studied and adopted by other countries.

Imme­di­ately before the war, we had a judicial break­through – almost the entire High Council of Justice, the most important and most prob­lem­atic body in the judiciary, resigned because it did not want to pass the integrity test provided by the recently adopted law. Now, despite the war, the inde­pen­dent Ethics Council has continued to elect the new leaders of the Ukrainian judiciary. The signif­i­cance of this reform for the country’s trans­for­ma­tion is extra­or­di­nary. It was even directly crit­i­cised by Putin in his speech before the February attack as an example of how “wrong” Ukraine is and how much it has broken away from the “Russian world” into which he is trying to force us all back.

But this could hardly have been achieved without one important process –  visa liber­al­iza­tion with the EU in 2014–2015. What does it have to do with the reforms process? It’s quite simple: the vast majority of the anti-corrup­tion reforms were condi­tions of the EU-Ukraine visa liber­al­iza­tion action plan. For political reasons, then-President Petro Poroshenko was very keen on visa-free travel with the EU, and his govern­ment, which was not always very fond of reforms, had no choice but to meet all the 140+ require­ments in the document for the estab­lish­ment of these insti­tu­tions in Ukraine.

Undoubt­edly, President Zelensky and many people in his govern­ment, as well as millions of other Ukrainians, are military heroes. But it is no secret that there are still forces in Ukraine that do not want change. They use war as an excuse to change nothing at present. And then they will use the victory as if it were evidence that every­thing is fine anyway. As a result, Ukraine risks remaining a “lost oppor­tu­nity” for decades, with the West gaining a permanent source of insta­bility on its border during this period.

Instead, while the window of oppor­tu­nity for change is open it is critical that govern­ment and civil society reformers, who have already achieved some funda­mental changes, receive a powerful instru­ment for Ukraine’s eventual trans­for­ma­tion into a European country in every sense.

And this instru­ment is the status of a candidate for EU member­ship, which Ukraine can obtain in June at the EU summit. All formal obstacles in the way of this have been removed. Ukraine has already submitted thousands of pages of documents in record time, despite the war. All that is needed now is a political decision from the govern­ments of the Member States, most of all Germany.

It is important to note that candidate status for Ukraine does not guarantee its automatic member­ship in the EU. But it will acknowl­edge the progress that Ukraine has already made in reforms within the framework of the Asso­ci­a­tion Agreement  – a highly symbolic gesture to the Ukrainian people, who are now protecting Europe from invasion. Above all, it is a precon­di­tion for accession nego­ti­a­tions, a long-term process of metic­u­lous work on reforms that will give Ukraine the rule of law, and the EU a large, trust­worthy partner in business and security.

Unfor­tu­nately, there are still some sceptics among EU govern­ments who do not want to see Ukraine as a candidate, either because of a lack of under­standing or empty dreams of new gas projects with Putin. At the same time, the support of the EU popu­la­tion for Ukraine and its inte­gra­tion processes is over­whelming. In Germany, 79% feel sympathy for Ukrainians, 71% see Ukraine as part of the European family, and 61% think Ukraine should join the EU when it is ready. And the candidacy status linked to the accession nego­ti­a­tions is a perfect instru­ment to get Ukraine ready for further integration.

The support rates in Ukraine for inte­gra­tion with the EU are also at an all-time high  of 91%.

It would be cata­strophic to waste such an oppor­tu­nity now while at the same time signalling to Ukrainians that despite the huge sacri­fices that they are making in defending European values, not only is no one in Europe waiting for Ukraine, but they do not even want to start talking with it.

A historic choice lies in the hands of the German govern­ment and other EU leaders, affecting not only Ukraine, but the whole of Europe and the whole civilized world. It is vitally important now to show true, unerring leadership.

Mikhailo Zhernakov is the director of the DeJuRe Foun­da­tion, an orga­ni­za­tion promoting the rule of law in Ukraine.



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