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Three months after making Ukraine a formal EU candidate, officials from both Kyiv and Brussels grappled on Monday with a much thornier topic: How to conduct normal business with a candidate at war.
It was the main subject at a meeting of the EU-Ukraine Association Council. The council, which reviews the EU’s relationship with its eastern neighbor, first met in 2014, soon after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
But Monday’s meeting took on added significance: It was not only the council’s first gathering since Russia’s invasion but also the first since EU leaders in June gave the green light to Ukraine’s EU ambitions. Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal traveled in for the occasion, marking his first visit to Brussels since the war began.
The decision in June to grant Ukraine and Moldova candidate status was a watershed moment for the EU, given the lukewarm appetite for further expansion over the preceding decade. But the political and practical realities of accession (as the EU’s membership process is dubbed) mean Ukraine is years away from becoming a full-fledged member.
Monday’s meeting was primarily about taking stock of Ukraine’s progress in meeting its membership goals.
Speaking after the meeting, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Ukraine’s progress in adopting EU-required reforms has “advanced at a remarkable rate” in recent months. But he added: “Before the war you needed reform, and those reforms are still needed.”
Specifically, the European Commission has set out seven conditions Ukraine must meet to move to the next step — formal membership negotiations — including changes to the country’s constitutional court and a better process for fighting corruption. The Commission is due to deliver a verdict by the end of December on Ukraine’s progress.
Shmyhal said on Monday that he’s confident Ukraine can meet these requirements by the year’s end and is hopeful of starting official membership talks early next year, which would involve adopting EU law.
“Ukrainian society is absolutely united,” he said. “We’re ready to move quickly, and we’re showing it in practical terms.”
But while this year’s decision to grant Ukraine candidate status was a huge morale boost for Kyiv and its overwhelmingly pro-EU population, EU officials and national capitals still have reservations about the country’s readiness for membership.
Corruption and excessive oligarch influence were still a feature of Ukrainian society before the war under President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s leadership. That’s not to mention the huge ramifications Ukrainian membership would have for the EU — it would likely be the bloc’s fifth- or sixth-largest country by population, and would place huge pressure on EU initiatives like its unified agriculture market, given the size of Ukraine’s landmass and agricultural sector.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi emphasized after Monday’s meeting that Ukraine needs to meet the standards for admission to the 27-member union.
“It’s the same for everyone when it comes to candidate countries,” he said. “Enlargement is a merit-based process.”
Still, Monday’s meeting showed signs of progress between the two sides, with the Commission praising Ukraine’s reform efforts — all the more remarkable given the country is fighting a war. For example, Zelenskyy’s government recently appointed a new head of its anti-corruption prosecutor’s office, Oleksandr Klymenko.
There are also positive signals that Brussels and Kyiv have been moving closer together outside of the framework of the formal accession process. For example, the Commission on Monday signed two agreements with Ukraine on its participation in the EU’s customs and tax regimes.
Similarly, Várhelyi highlighted a new transport deal with Ukraine and pacts on other issues like cell phone roaming charges, calling these steps “elements that bring real integration, on the ground, immediately.”
Ukraine also boasts a free trade agreement with the EU, as well as an “association agreement” that further legally binds the two sides.
Yet these deals are separate from the enlargement process. And Kyiv has been clear: There is no substitute for actually becoming a member of the club.
While Monday’s meeting confirmed the EU’s commitment to working with Ukraine on exactly that, the bloc has been less forthcoming with other kinds of help Kyiv is requesting.
As Shmyhal told POLITICO ahead of the meeting, Kyiv is unhappy with the EU’s limited action on banning Russians from entering the bloc’s free-travel zone. Similarly, he used his visit to Brussels — and Berlin on Sunday — to call for more weapons, ammunition and military aid.
Standing beside Shmyhal, Borrell announced that the EU would “provide support — politically, financially, humanitarian and military, as long as it takes and as much as needed.”
Yet the EU is still buying Russian gas and has not stepped up to the extent militarily as Kyiv would like. It has also yet to disburse the latest tranche of a €9 billion aid package EU officials pledged earlier this year, though a Commission official said a proposal to distribute that money is expected this week.
With Europe facing an unprecedented rise in energy prices, however, keeping the promise of EU membership on the table and enhancing Ukraine’s access to the single market in the long term may be ultimately the most enduring help Brussels can offer.