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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