On Monday, ministers and top officials from the foreign ministries of the 27 EU member states, along with the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, and the EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, arrived in Kyiv. This visit, which united all EU member states politically, is unprecedented and aims to demonstrate that Ukraine remains a priority for the European Union.
At the end of last week, ministers responsible for European affairs from all EU member states gathered in Spain (which currently presides over the EU Council to discuss how the new wave of enlargement, likely to include Ukraine, should proceed. This meeting marked the first official political-level discussion within the EU about the shape of the new Union. Representatives from France and Germany, the two de facto leaders of the EU, also presented expert analyses of enlargement scenarios.
This process elicits mixed feelings from Ukrainian politicians and diplomats. Some reasonably emphasise that the European consensus that EU enlargement will happen and may occur in the near future is in itself a victory. Until recently, many European capitals either denied this possibility or hid behind vague phrases about a "long-term perspective."
Ukraine's future accession is now presented as a fact in internal EU discussions.
However, others caution against excessive optimism. The path to membership may be a long one. Even the publicly announced date – 2030 – may not be met, just as similar predictions regarding enlargement into the Western Balkans were not fulfilled.
The Ukrainian President's Office refers to the combination of the enlargement and the reform processes in the EU as a "trap."
Expansion Plan, Option 0.1
On 29 September, the EU's General Affairs Council, the body responsible for EU procedures, including enlargement issues, gathered in Murcia, Spain, for a meeting. For the first time in many years, the discussion was focused on a significant EU expansion, potentially enlarging the Union to more than 35 member states.
The results of the talks were not disclosed in detail by the ministers who hosted the meeting. The main message from officially released quotations was that EU enlargement is inevitable. Even the EU Enlargement Commissioner, Olivér Várhelyi, who is known for his scepticism towards Ukraine and has occasionally been accused of bias and siding with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, stated that the accession of new members needs to be accelerated.
However, what the press release did not mention was the document discussed by the ministers,
even though its contents were made public before the meeting. A 60-page working document, which constitutes an expert report on EU institutional reform in preparation for enlargement, including Ukraine's accession, was made available to the press. This document presents various paths for reforming the Union in advance of enlargement and includes Ukraine. It was commissioned jointly by the governments of France and Germany, who presented it together.
Although this document is not an official position of the two governments, it will not go unnoticed. One of its main proposals is the creation of multiple tiers of European integration. In addition to full EU members, it suggests introducing a level of "associate members" that would gain access to the single market, pay membership fees, fall under the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union, and more. However, they would not be able to use certain instruments and would not have voting rights on many EU bodies.
This document predictably proposes the elimination of the veto mechanism of EU member states. In the future, all decisions should be made by "qualified majority voting, the parameters of which should also be reviewed. However, existing mechanisms enabling a single country to block a decision may remain for exceptional cases.
The document also insists on significantly simplifying the procedure for imposing sanctions on EU members who violate EU principles (recently activated against Hungary and Poland). Countries against whom a sanctions procedure has been initiatied would not be able to block their own punishment. For the first time in its history, the EU may introduce the possibility of expelling a member state that systematically violates the rules. Such an option did not exist before, and Hungary actively exploited this situation. Orban understood that he would not face real consequences for his anti-European policies.
Ukraine Is Looking for a Trap
While this policy directly concerns Ukraine, the latter is not involved in its development. But even without the ability to vote on this issue, Ukraine retains the right to make statements.
Kyiv did not remain silent. The most vocal, albeit without providing details, was Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, who, the day after the meeting in Murcia, stated that Ukraine would not agree to "second-class membership."
As it happens, at the same time as the Spanish meeting, a discussion on this matter was also taking place in Kyiv. The Accession Exchange Forum brought together representatives of the governments of two states on their way to the EU — Ukraine and Moldova. Georgia and Western Balkan countries were represented by former officials or experts. Kyiv is seriously concerned that the EU's discussions could lead to a significant delay in the accession process.
This is a real risk, according to officials who dea with EU relations. And it appears to be the main one.
"Ukraine, which has effectively unblocked the enlargement process, would not want to be blocked itself (due to the slow EU reform process)," said Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna at the forum.
"The most critical issue: will this process affect the pace of Ukraine's EU integration?" asked Ihor Zhovkva, Deputy Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine and Presidential Advisor on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration.
Moreover, this danger is seen not only by Kyiv but also by Ukraine's friends in the EU.
"Some European colleagues are already warning President Zelenskyy that this is a trap for Ukraine. If the EU reform process begins, the accession of new states may be postponed again and for a long time. Remember how difficult it was in the past to agree on changes to the fundamental EU treaties. So how much time will it take now?" explained Zhovkva.
In a conversation with the editor of European Pravda, he emphasised that he considers Ukraine's accession to the EU possible even before reform of the Union, and that the reform of the system should begin either concurrently or shortly thereafter.
Jovana Marović, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Montenegro for European Integration, did not hide the fact that she had heard some creative ideas from European colleagues regarding "trimmed membership," and considered that under certain conditions, these ideas might work. "For example, the idea of not having our own European Commissioner or not having veto rights (for new members) is acceptable if we are joining the EU now. But if we are joining in 10 years, we would like to have all the rights," she explained.
However, even experts agree that concessions cannot be endless.
Ultimately, the European Union also needs to have Ukraine within its boundaries.
War and geopolitics have brought significant changes. "Geopolitics plays a role... and the war has created an opportunity for consensus on issues that would have been impossible to agree on within the EU," explained Katarína Mathernová, the new EU Ambassador to Ukraine. However, the reform of the EU is too important to be carried out solely under the pressure of war.
There are also several geopolitical considerations at play. European countries, despite being part of the European Union, continue to compete with each other. "The question is how to ensure that the EU reform does not strengthen Germany and does not deprive new member states of influence," noted Polish analyst Łukasz Adamski, Deputy Director of the Józef Mieroszewski Dialogue Centre.
Overcoming the resistance of countries like Hungary as regards abolishing veto rights and reforming the mechanism for punishing states that violate EU principles will be even more challenging (if it is achievable at all). Viktor Orbán, under whose leadership Hungary has ceased to be a democracy and no longer meets EU criteria, continues to abuse the veto power to the advantage of Moscow. He is unlikely to agree to replace the current lenient rules.
This means that the discussion on EU reform could once again come to a dead end. Perhaps the only way out of this impasse is to realise that EU expansion is essential for the EU itself.
Pavlo Klimkin, who also participated in the Accession Exchange Forum, is sceptical in his assessment: "I don't see the EU's will for a fundamental overhaul of itself. The EU does not fit the 21st century. It is a creature of the 20th century." He, like Ihor Zhovkva, believes that the EU should consider expansion even before conducting internal reforms. "I don't believe that the EU needs reforms to accept new members. This is fundamentally the wrong approach. The EU needs to understand what kind of European Union it needs in the future. Or maybe it's not needed at all," Klimkin expressed his opinion quite radically. "The main question is not about reform but whether the EU can remain strong if it does not integrate new members and demonstrate the ability to export democracy in its neighbourhood," argued Jovana Marović, former Deputy Prime Minister of Montenegro.
Despite the scepticism of some participants in the discussion, the question of "whether the EU will expand" remains unanswered. Because even in the EU member states that say they are in principle ready and willing to admit new members and are even discussing mechanisms to this end, there is no answer to this question. However, for their ideas to become a reality, participants need not only ideas but, above all, political courage.
Written by Sergiy Sydorenko
European Pravda, Editor