Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine, Olha Stefanishyna, spoke of Ukraine’s rapid movement towards the EU during wartime, the preconditions for that, and the prospects that open.
With broad international circles’ total shock following Russia’s bold aggression in late February 2022, with lots of those who doubted that Ukraine would last long in a full-scale war, our brave country submitted an official application for membership in the European Union.
In the following months, Ukraine repelled the enemy in a stunning way and demonstrated stability and efficiency. And as soon as on June 23, the leaders of 27 EU Member States adopted a unanimous decision to grant Ukraine the status of an EU candidate country.
Behind the scenes of these official announcements is the daily difficult work on the transformation of the country and its approximation to EU standards, which has been going on for almost ten years. Thanks to this, the country manages to achieve convincing results and confidently move towards the goal. Olha Stefanishyna, the Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine, talks about Ukraine’s European integration breakthrough against the background of a full-scale war.
On the fourth day of the full-scale invasion, on February 28, 2022, Ukraine applied to join the EU, and as soon as in June, it received the status of a candidate for membership in the European Union. What made Ukraine, despite the brutal war, take this step and be successful?
Our application for EU membership had two very important dimensions. Firstly, we understood that one of the goals of the full-scale invasion was the physical destruction of the country and destruction of our gains associated with the European reforms. And it was important for us that, when applying for membership, we called to record the path we had gone through and the reforms we carried out.
Secondly, applying for EU membership was a message to our European colleagues that we believed in the European project and, despite the aggressor’s attempt to destroy it directly in Ukraine, we invested in the unity of the European Union and its future. It was these arguments that became decisive in deciding on the candidate status. And although it was a political decision, the transformation that Ukraine had undergone for almost a decade provided the necessary basis for its adoption by European politicians.
The transformation Ukraine underwent almost over a decade has formed a necessary basis to ensure approval of our application for EU membership by the European politicians.
Let’s recall the circumstances of adoption of the decision granting Ukraine the status of an EU candidate state. Might it be that some stages and nuances of that process have remained behind the scenes?
We have gone through all stages absolutely — from complete rejection and messages that in the conditions of a full-scale war it was absolutely impossible to consider Ukraine a future Member State of the European Union to the unconditional consensus of 27 EU Member States, which, in fact, at a meeting of the European Council, made a decision and granted Ukraine a candidate status in 30 seconds.
First of all, it was our resilience that became the basis for such a decision, because we had fully maintained state governability. Moreover, even in the state of war, we continued to pass Eurointegration laws and went on integrating into the European market. Even despite massive ruining and occupation of some parts of its territory, Ukraine remained a strong and responsible partner because we complied with the agreements and rules. It was why Ukraine became a part of the European Union’s energy market in less than a month from the onset of the full-scale invasion. In fact, the EU has also introduced duty-free exports of Ukrainian products. Every such decision was a success story.
It’s worth reminding that the position of France was of key importance. In March, when the leaders’ summit was held in Versailles, literally two weeks after Ukraine applied for membership, the position of France and our friendly countries became a turning point. On that day, the EU leaders agreed that Ukraine would become an EU Member State despite whatever further developments.
It was an extremely difficult discussion. Our governmental team, the presidential team, and the President himself did all our best to ensure adoption of such a decision specifically at the level of political leadership. Normally, at such meetings, the leaders approve the decisions previously agreed upon by their teams. It was not the case in Versailles. The discussion of Ukraine’s European future had taken almost an entire night. Now, we call this turning point ‘the Versailles Night’. Then, the leaders of Europe, indeed, discussed their future with Ukraine becoming its integral part.
After that, there was an advocacy campaign launched by the parliament, government and presidential team in all European capitals. However, all that was just a confirmation of a decision adopted in March during ‘the Versailles Night’ that became historical for Ukraine and Europe.
What basis for such step towards Ukraine on the part of the EU was prepared by the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement in effect since 2014?
Apparently, without the changes the government and parliament had introduced every year since the Agreement effective date, granting us an EU candidate state’s status would be impossible, even with all the EU’s desire to help Ukraine.
Ukraine would have been unable to become a part of the European energy market if we hadn’t reformed our energy market to bring it in line with European standards. We would have been unable to liberalise our trade with the EU without our legislation and trade conditions brought in line with those in Europe. We wouldn’t have been able to make ‘customs visa-free’ regime and customs simplifications work from October 1, either. Because to achieve that, Ukraine had worked for years amending legislation, transforming customs and passing through numerous rounds of the European Union’s assessments.
It means we had made all our best in advance to be granted the EU candidate state’s status as if we were preparing for a critical moment to come. That said, I am proud of the results we have achieved, especially over two years preceding the start of the full-scale war.
We had made all our best in advance to be granted the EU candidate state’s status. That said, I am proud of the results we have achieved, especially over two years preceding the start of the full-scale war.
Today, in terms of politics, we have no barriers separating us from the European Union. Moreover, after achieving the status of the candidate state, the parliament has, in fact, passed all necessary market laws required under the Association Agreement. That is why we are requesting more systemic simplifications, raising money directly from the European Union’s domestic funds, and a full-fledged integration into the EU internal market because we have a legal and institutional basis to do that, and what is more important, we have trust.
Of course, there are lots of sceptics in the European Union, add to this an active, systemic and still effective anti-Ukrainian propaganda (initiated by Russia). But we win the trust by the changes we make and by implementation of the decisions we take jointly with the EU. And now, we are engaged in a dialogue with the EU to enable Ukraine to become the part of the European market even before it becomes a Member State.
Transformations you mentioned unfolded at an accelerated rate during the war. Specifically, synchronising with the power grid of continental Europe, ENTSO-E, was scheduled for 2023, whereas it took place on March 16, 2022. How has Ukraine managed to achieve these results?
What’s important is that we had in place fully capable central authorities and local self-governments, various state registers and data bases, and international exchange instruments. The government and parliament spared no effort to take necessary legislative decisions. And that laid a foundation for trust in Ukraine, which made it possible to make important trade and economic decisions, thereby pump the large amounts of financial resources to support the national economy.
We had been working on joining the European power grid before the onset of full-scale invasion. The date of 2023 emerged not only due to technical or legal aspects but also as a result of political considerations inside the EU and capabilities of the European Commission. Before February 24, we had time to wait. Yet even after the onset of a full-scale war, Ukraine, targeted by Russian shells and missiles, demonstrated it was capable of meeting its commitments, and our power greed started operating in an isolated mode. We have successfully passed this last trial, and the EU leaders have made a relevant decision. A political consensus was reached immediately but we had laid a solid foundation for it.
Ukraine has received seven EU recommendations required for the EU membership. How is Ukraine implementing them, how has it progressed, and what needs to be done?
The history of this issue is very interesting. Some EU Member States required the implementation of the seven recommendations to precede Ukraine’s candidate status. In other words, some Member States were willing to set particular conditions for Ukraine to become an EU candidate state, but long-lasting discussions in various capitals gave Ukraine the candidate status without any conditions.
Hence, these seven recommendations represent a platform for launching membership negotiations. We have already announced that we will have the recommendations completed to an extent possible by late 2022 – early 2023. The successful implementation of these recommendations, whether in the area of the rule of law or of anti-corruption policy or in the dimension of human rights, will bring Ukraine far above the perception still shared in many capitals and partly imposed by Russian propaganda. Therefore, to maintain our image, it is very important for us to implement all the above recommendations in the spirit of mutual trust, and get a positive assessment from our EU colleagues.
We have already made some important steps on this path: we designated the head of the Specialised Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office and launched a transparent and open competition for the position of director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau. Moreover, we have passed a number of important laws on countering terrorism and money laundering, which is very important in a wartime, account taken of the role Russia plays in making these crimes wide-spread and thus becoming a terrorist state.
During the recent consultation with the European Commission, an emphasis was placed on the fact that Ukraine had already made all necessary amendments to legislation on transparent ownership structure of large companies and on tracing criminal assets. Now, we are in for an official positive assessment of the above decisions.
During the recent consultation with the European Commission, an emphasis was placed on the fact that Ukraine had already made all necessary amendments to legislation. Now, we are in for an official positive assessment of the above decisions.
The parliament has recently passed the law on media. That is a historical decision because we have been living under a bit improved post-Soviet legislation. The draft law on national minorities (communities) was finalised and approved in a record time, with an account taken of the position of the Council of Europe. Another important decision manifested in the parliamentary support of the law on the improvement of the procedure for the competitive selection of the candidates for positions of judges of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine. We have achieved a concerted teamwork of the government and parliament, for which I am especially grateful to my colleagues.
To sum it up, we have launched all necessary processes and developed necessary solutions for implementation of each of these seven recommendations. And we understand that achievement of each of these criteria is vital not only for Ukraine’s further movement towards the EU, but also for the country itself.
Does implementation of the above seven recommendations go according to the schedule, without any delays?
I think, in peacetime, it would have required us many years. But now, we are moving at a huge speed, which even scares our European partners. It’s because when those seven recommendations were formed, our European colleagues were far from understanding the fact that Ukraine could move fast in a wartime. That is why, our speed is estimated as ‘rocket speed’ at all meetings. Almost every two or three days, we have negotiations on each recommendation; we cooperate actively with the Council of Europe and the Venice Commission.
What is a realistic date for opening membership negotiations with the EU, now?
We think that it is absolutely realistic to start negotiations in 2023, but we are beginning our preparations now. In December, the European Commission will publish a large assessment report on Ukraine, which was part of the questionnaire and concerns all sectors of the economy: transport, energy, social, digital services, etc. It is going to be an analysis of the functioning of Ukrainian institutions, their compliance with European standards, which will become the basis for shaping the negotiating position of both Ukraine and the European Union.
Ukraine will start formulating its negotiating position as early as in January 2023, so that with a political decision on the launch of enlargement negotiations, it will be ready to join the process immediately.
The stronger the Ukrainian negotiating position is during the accession to the European Union, the more opportunities we get from membership and the better we protect our Ukrainian businesses in the conditions of fierce competition on this huge, largest free market in the world. We will be able to be a fully successful member of the European Union only if we defend our positions at the very beginning.
Ukraine is not the first country joining the EU. Whose example can we take as a model?
I studied carefully the paths of the last 10–15 countries that joined the EU, and looking at the steps Ukraine is taking, I think it would rather be our Ukrainian path that will become an example to be followed. We have learned the lessons, errors and achievements of the countries that have already joined the EU or are candidate states now, and I am sure it is Ukrainian example that is worth to be followed.
What exactly will be unique in our Ukrainian path to the EU?
The key is that a relevant agenda is set by Ukraine itself. We are not going after the flow but understand what we do need. We actually have an experience of introducing reforms required by the EU, and we know how to integrate into the EU domestic market. In fact, we have already become part of the European Union, and we realise that the EU membership is vital for Ukraine and offers it lots of opportunities. It is important for us not to adopt EU policies but formulate them jointly with the European leaders. We clearly see the goal and set the agenda by our dynamics, vigour, and powerful communication. For this reason, I am one hundred per cent certain Ukraine will not repeat the failures of other states that had been in a dialogue for years.
What economic effect can Ukraine have from accession to the EU by analogy with countries that have already gone this way?
It is worth noting that a huge inflow of direct investment in the country comes either in the process of completion of the EU membership negotiations or during the first years after the accession. Specifically, in Bulgaria, investment inflow exceeded 31% of GDP in the very first year after accession to the EU. In Croatia, which is by far smaller than Ukraine, investment inflow reached almost 8% during the negotiations, while in Slovenia and Slovakia 8% and 12% of their GDPs respectively at the final stage of negotiations, which meant huge money.
Direct investments are exactly what Ukraine needs at the reconstruction stage. It is because this money is not a macrofinancial assistance or repayable loans. Investments can be compared with blood necessary for economic and business development.
In this context, accession to the European Union will become a key to Ukraine’s recovery. And we believe we will quickly launch this process.
How unified is the current position of various EU Member States regarding Ukraine’s European integration?
I cannot say some Member States are sceptical about Ukraine because there is no doubt about the consensus of 27 Member States. Still, a discussion of EU enlargement in general is underway. The point is not only about Ukraine but also about Moldova, Georgia, the Western Balkan countries, with their long-lasting strive for membership, and these issues need to be addressed in a comprehensive manner.
We also have the experience of Ukraine’s participation in Eastern Partnership together with Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova, and here, Ukraine led by shaping agenda for that initiative. And I think, Ukraine, while moving towards the EU membership, will contribute to a consensus on other countries among the EU leaders.
How has attitude towards Ukraine changed inside the EU over the months of war?
The courage of the Ukrainian people and our Armed Forces, resolve of our authorities, leadership of the President of Ukraine — all that taken together has brought Ukraine to the same level with all other world leaders. It now goes without saying that no decisions concerning Ukraine are taken without Ukraine. We are a direct and equal actor at the negotiation table, and it is a strong bid for leadership in the region, which is already supported by a large number of leaders.
With which countries Ukraine should step up dialogue and make every effort to that end?
I dream of having a dialogue with all countries in the world — key African, Asian, and other countries — structured and focused to the same extent as with the EU. Because today’s cooperation with all leaders of the European countries and institutions makes it possible to support economy and public, and become stronger and make unprecedented decisions.
For example, the European Union’s military assistance to the third country was the first decision of such kind adopted for tens of years the EU has been in existence. It means physical, political and economic ‘stitching together’ on which we still need to work with other countries.
Of course, we feel a very strong and powerful support from the EU. What steps Ukraine expects the EU will take?
We have to continue to physically ‘stitch’ us together with the European Union. That means increasing the throughput capacity at our borders and removing barriers to the movement of goods. Unfortunately, it was war that triggered such ‘stitching’ because almost 8 million citizens have ended up in Europe, which led to the adoption of a large number of important decisions. Those include removal of barriers to the movement of our citizens within the EU, granting Ukrainians the same rights to employment and residence as citizens of the European Union enjoy. Which means we have to continue removing barriers. That is what we mean when speaking about Ukraine’s integration into the EU domestic market.
What role the EU will play in Ukraine’s recovery after the victory?
It is already clear today — and it is the coordinated position of all leaders — that the recovery of Ukraine must be closely associated with Ukraine’s membership in the EU. Therefore, the restoration of the infrastructure should take into account the fact that it will become part of the pan-European infrastructure. This applies to railways, motorways, and ports. In the same way, the post-war Ukrainian economy should function on the basis of European rules. Accordingly, we will coordinate the recovery of our country with the European Union.
Will Ukraine be able to receive from the EU Member States the access to blocked assets of Russian businesses and the Central Bank to restore its economy?
Together with the European Commission, we are working on appropriate legal mechanisms for the confiscation or management of such assets. In fact, in recent decades, the EU has been a leader in the management of criminal assets and the confiscation of illegally obtained resources. Now, a new generation of regulations is being developed, which is inspired by the need to confiscate assets frozen as part of the sanctions policy.
I am sure, such a decision will be made. Its preparation will take time, but perhaps, the point will be that during the period while the assets are blocked, they can be used and managed, and the income from the use and management will be directed to the recovery of Ukraine.
Let’s imagine that in ten years, Ukraine becomes a full member of the European Union, a successful country and a regional leader. How would you answer the question now: why did Ukraine manage to succeed?
Ukraine succeeded because the country worked hard on it and simply had no choice other than the European one.
This material was prepared with the financial assistance of the European Union. The views expressed herein may in no way be taken as the official opinion of the European Union.