Reforming Europe for Future Enlargement: EU’s Changing Approach to Ukraine's Accession

Friday, 27 October 2023 — , European Pravda
Ukraine doesn't want to wait for decisions beyond its control to join EU institutions. In the photo: the Presidents of Ukraine and the European Commission in Kyiv on 2 February 2023. Credit: The press office of the President of Ukraine

On 2 November in Berlin, leaders and representatives of the foreign ministries of all European Union member states will meet with those of the candidate countries. This will be the first major conference dedicated to EU reform, considered since last year as a prerequisite for the Union's enlargement.

There is a chance that Ukraine will hear good news at the conference. Sources say there is a growing understanding within the EU that reforms should be kept separate from the enlargement process. European capitals have begun to hear Ukraine's arguments why it should become an EU member without any amendment to the European treaties.

Official Kyiv and the Ukrainian expert community need to do everything to make this idea prevail in the EU. It seems realistic and could open up the possibility of EU accession by 2030, as predicted by Charles Michel.

Of course, for this to happen, Ukraine must win the war. Accession will be possible only if Ukraine does not slow down its process of adapting to EU law.


Reforming Europe, not just Ukraine

The idea that a deep institutional EU reform should precede its expansion emerged after Ukraine and Moldova applied for EU membership in 2022. Before that, negotiations with other candidate countries were more or less blocked and had not made much progress. There were various reasons for this slowdown, one of the most important of which was that certain capitals, such as Paris, openly opposed EU enlargement in principle.

Given such a reality, Ukraine seemed to have no prospects. Western European leaders did not even want to consider a new status for Ukraine. But then came the Russian invasion, which changed European leaders’ views.

Leaders of key European states have shown a willingness to make bold decisions. In June 2022, Ukraine and Moldova were officially granted candidate status.

However, the 180-degree shift in enlargement policy could not pass without consequences.

In the spring of 2022, the EU came up with a demand that enlargement could only happen alongside EU reforms. This idea was promoted mainly by France and Germany. They explained that the EU's working rules needed to be changed for greater efficiency.

It is hard to argue with that. The European Union has proven unable to function efficiently, even with its current 27 members, some of whom abuse their veto power. This is true primarily of Hungary, which has long ceased to be a democracy and no longer fulfils the membership criteria. However, before the major enlargement in 2004, the EU had not anticipated such a possibility and did not provide a true mechanism for punishing leaders like Orbán.

The accession of new states with an uncertain level of democracy, such as Ukraine or Montenegro, poses new challenges for Western Europe. Therefore, countries like Germany have stated: "We will allow enlargement only on the condition of institutional reforms."

Over time, EU leaders have begun to mention more frequently the requirement for a comprehensive reform of the Union, which includes revising voting rules and eliminating the veto mechanism.

However, such a reform is practically impossible to implement. For several EU countries, the veto has become a tool of foreign policy. It's not just Hungary. Even older EU member states, like Austria or Greece, have recently used their veto to negotiate something for themselves. Additionally, several Central European countries, such as Poland or Czechia, believe that losing veto rights in the EU would practically amount to a loss of some of their sovereignty.

All of this means that the EU reform desired by major capitals is not achievable any time soon. Implementing it would require extraordinary events that would compel many governments to change their stance on this critical issue.

What is needed for success

It is unacceptable to Ukraine that its EU accession should be tied to an unattainable condition, and one over which it has no influence. Ukrainian officials have been sending this signal to their European colleagues since late 2022.

However, Kyiv officially and publicly began only this autumn to insist on decoupling EU enlargement from its reform. European Pravda reported on this in the article Lack of EU Courage. Ukraine's Ways and Means of Joining the Union. Ihor Zhovkva, a diplomatic advisor to President Zelenskyy, stressed that he considers Ukraine's EU accession before reforming the Union to be realistic, and added that Ukraine has the support of a number of EU members.

"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?" noted Zhovkva.

The EU is not rushing to agree with the Ukrainian arguments. No one officially or publicly withdraws the old demand.

For example, in a position paper on EU reform commissioned by the governments of France and Germany published on 18 September 2023 and recently presented to all 27 EU members, the requirement for EU reform before enlargement is stated as fundamental and unchangeable, as it will make the EU "ready for enlargement." The document states, "Before the next enlargement, all remaining policy decisions [of the EU Council] should be transferred from unanimity to QMV [qualified majority voting]."

There is a chance for a breakthrough in this matter as early as this week.

A major ministerial conference dedicated solely to the subject of EU reform is set to take place in Berlin on 2 November. It will be a high-level closed event, bringing together EU foreign ministers and advisors. At the same time, European experts in various places will also attempt to find a model for EU enlargement that can realistically be implemented.

Candidate countries are also invited to Berlin.

As before, Kyiv will insist on the unacceptability of political conditions delaying Ukraine's EU accession after Kyiv fullfills the legislative and technical requirements for membership.

European heavyweight states meeting in Berlin may also support the Ukrainian perspective.

France is already prepared to abandon its insistence on EU reform as a precondition, as confirmed by two of European Pravda’s high-level independent sources. This information has been circulating in the media, and the idea has been growing in Paris since last year. In 2023, President Macron is said to have opted for this idea as well, making the French position more stable. However, there have been no official French statements.

According to two interviewees from different European countries, Berlin has also started supporting the Ukrainian perspective. This is an even more crucial development.

Unfortunately, this viewpoint has not yet achieved European consensus. "Many EU countries remain silent. However, it's a good sign that they are not opposing it," a Ukrainian diplomat remarked. Currently, everything indicates that Kyiv has a real chance to secure public statements in support of the new enlargement approach.

In general, there is political readiness within the EU for Ukraine's accession. It would be illogical to make its accession impossible by introducing an unattainable condition.

However, to achieve this goal, it takes more than just diplomatic efforts.

As the aforementioned Franco-German document suggests, the European expert community is even more sceptical about this issue than are European politicians. It's crucial to convince them that such an approach is wrong.

And last but not least: Ukraine is already on a rapid path towards EU accession. If the requirement that EU institutional reform must precede enlargement is eliminated or softened, this path will become even shorter. But it won't eliminate the main and most extensive task facing Kyiv. To join the EU, Ukraine must complete all the reforms specified in EU law. Otherwise, the EU's internal market will not function. The EU will never agree to waive this requirement.

The timeline for when Ukraine will become a full-fledged EU member depends on understanding this fact, on the speed of reforms, and, of course, on when Ukraine wins the war.


Sergiy Sydorenko, 

European Pravda's Co-founder and Editor

An expert on European Integration

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