When selecting the new ambassador to Ukraine, the EU chose a candidate who is well-versed in Ukrainian affairs, perhaps better than most Brussels bureaucrats. Mathernová has long headed the Support Group for Ukraine, a special unit of the European Commission, and served as Deputy Head of the Directorate General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations. She has visited Ukraine a dozen times.
Mathernová began her work in Kyiv this week and gave her first interview to EuroPravda. She discusses whether EU accession is possible without the de-occupation of territory, the timeline for this process, what to expect from the negotiations, and what President Zelenskyy promised at their first meeting.
"Geopolitics, of course, plays a role"
Katarína, I'm really happy to see you here in Kyiv, in your new capacity.
Thank you very much for sitting down with me for this interview. I have been working with and dealing with Ukraine for many, many years, really since 2015, and coming to Ukraine many times, but it's really an immense honour to be here as the ambassador of the European Union.
I have met President Zelenskyy on a number of occasions. I was actually at his inauguration. The last time I met him was in November of last year when he actually gave me a state honour [the Order of Merit]. That was a very emotional occasion.
This week, I presented President Zelenskyy with letters of credence. It was also a very emotional ceremony, a very solemn, very nice ceremony.
He said, "Glad to see you back, Katarína." That was a very nice welcome. Along with President Zelenskyy, there were also his colleagues, Mr [Andrii] Yermak, Minister [Dmytro] Kuleba, Mr [Ihor] Zhоvkva and Mr. [Andrii] Sibyha.
The Ukrainian leadership says that Ukraine should be ready for membership very soon. Do you share this opinion?
I very much hope and trust that Ukraine will finalise its work on the famous seven steps that were outlined in our opinion in June of 2022 when Ukraine was given candidate status along with Moldova. Your president was saying in our bilateral meeting yesterday that in another month, he expects that those remaining measures will be taken.
I trust and believe that the EU leaders will take the decision to open accession negotiations in December. I hope that step will be taken.
Then the issue of actual membership is going to take some time. There are a lot of sometimes exciting, sometimes boring requirements that a country has to go through. But what is really important is to have the political signal of opening negotiations.
The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, has stated that the EU should be ready for enlargement by 2030. Is it realistic for Ukraine to achieve this goal by 2030?
For a country to join the EU, a lot of reforms have to take place. But if there is anything that is extraordinarily inspiring about your country, it's that things can happen fast.
Especially since the escalation of the war, since the invasion of Ukraine last February, I’ve been telling everybody in Brussels that time counts in different increments in Ukraine. What takes months somewhere else takes weeks or days here.
I think 2030 could be realistic if one really, really works hard. You need to maintain a reform tempo. It's not always a linear process, but I can imagine that being realistic.
It's not only the reforms that Ukraine needs to undertake that are going to define the timing, but also the institutional and policy changes that need to take place on the side of the European Union to be ready to expand beyond the current 27.
It’s important to realise that it’s not only Ukraine that needs to reform, but also the EU. And that's not easy.
Some people expect geopolitical decisions, not something based on reforms. What would you say to them?
I think that geopolitics come into play very much. Otherwise we wouldn't be discussing it.
Geopolitics, of course, plays a role. The vector is the geopolitics. But there are a number of fundamental reforms to help the country modernise and technical requirements that also need to be done.
The geopolitics itself is not going to lead to actual membership. There are a lot of things that need to happen in the meantime.
"Painting Ukraine as a corrupted state was very much an occupation of Russian propagandists"
You mentioned that during your conversation with President Zelenskyy, you discussed some outstanding issues related to the fulfilment of the seven conditions. Could you name them?
The discussion with President Zelenskyy was on the occasion of the credential ceremony, so this was not a technical discussion. This would not have been the place to go into technical issues.
There is a lot of work that has been done to fulfil the seven criteria or the seven steps.
Some of them have been fulfilled already. For example, the requirements on the reinstatement of the judicial governance bodies, the High Council of Justice and the High Qualification Commission and others, the media law, etc.
We have also had very important progress on the anti-corruption criteria, and also the reinstatement of the asset declaration.
So I think that there has been a lot of progress.
In terms of the anti-money laundering framework, there is still an outstanding issue – the famous law on politically exposed persons.
There is also an evaluation ongoing of the steps related to national minorities.
Among Ukraine's foreign partners, there is a stereotype where the name 'Ukraine' is associated with the word 'corruption'. We have been hearing this for many years. In Ukraine, there is generally an understanding that this stereotype is not always based on reality. Is this perception changing internationally?
Ukraine was indeed marred by systemic corruption in the years prior to Maidan.
I mean, the spectacular discoveries about the wealth of the previous president before Maidan were testimony to the oligarchic structures.
But let's also not forget that painting this picture was very much an occupation of Russian propagandists, because it worked with the Western audience.
Indeed, Ukraine was equated with corruption, and while some of it was justified by reality, some of it, or the extent of it, was not fair.
There have been a lot of reforms since then. You have a whole architecture of anti-corruption bodies. They're carrying out investigations.
They're prosecuting people, judges are adjudicating corruption cases.
So the picture is certainly changing. The biggest change that has happened is what we are witnessing now during the escalation of the war.
What has really changed is societal expectations, the expectations of ordinary Ukrainians. They are not putting their lives to recreate the old Ukraine. They are putting their lives to create a modern, new, non-corrupt country. And I think the basis is there.
The image in the West is changing. Very few people expected Ukraine and Ukrainians to be holding up this well against such pressure as this terrible war. If you had had a system so thoroughly corrupt as the picture was painted by propaganda, it would have fallen like a house of cards. And it didn’t. So there is a new appreciation and understanding of Ukraine as a country that functions in the face of terrible war.
"It's a bit wrong to call this process negotiations"
Moldova, which is also moving towards EU membership, says it has been assured that it can join the EU without the de-occupation of Transnistria. This issue is also important for Ukraine. Is it possible to become a full-fledged EU member before the conflict with Russia is over?
I'm not sure that Moldova would have received any reassurance from anybody in the EU along these lines.
I would say on the contrary, the experience of some of the previous enlargement is that you don't want to drag a territorial conflict into the EU. I think the EU would be cautious on that front.
But what I can very easily see is that the enlargement dynamic and the prospect of joining the EU could become an important incentive for reintegration.
In other words, the prospect of actually joining the EU, for both the left and right bank of the Nistru River, could be the motivation for reintegration.
I would see it that way rather than bringing a country with a territorial dispute into the EU.
So, de-occupation first, membership second?
With Ukraine, the issue is one of an active war.
The good news is that the actual process of getting ready for enlargement takes some time, and hopefully the territorial disputes will have been resolved by then.
We all understand that during wartime, there must be certain restrictions, like the 24/7 newscast which has replaced TV channels, and limitations on political life which some fear may replace political pluralism. Do you have a message on this to Ukrainians?
Ukraine is in an active state of war! You are under martial law!
On my first and second night after moving to Kyiv, I had to go to a shelter at night. In such a situation, the limitations seem justified.
Of course, looking at a situation of peace and normality, I think that the democratic expectations, the pluralism expectations, citizens' freedoms and media freedoms are an expectation that Ukraine will be held to.
To conclude, let's briefly explain how the negotiations for Ukraine's accession to the EU will take place and when they will start. Who will be negotiating with whom?
Enlargement negotiations are technically conducted by the European Commission. The top negotiator would be Ursula von der Leyen. They are not conducted at the presidential level.
Normally the European Commission nominates a chief negotiator, and the same would happen on the side of the negotiating country. They would have teams that then look at sectoral issues.
Some of the very sensitive issues would then be elevated to political level, which on the side of the Commission is the Commissioner for Enlargement. On the side of the Ukraine government, it is presumably the Ukrainian authorities, presumably the Prime Minister.
There may be some very sensitive issues that then go to the presidential level, but that would not be their day-to-day business.
Technically it’s done by the Commission, but every step of moving further through the different chapters, different clusters, different deadlines, has to be approved by the member states in unanimity.
That's a very important message. To proceed in the enlargement process, one has to really make sure that bilateral disputes don't enter the discussion, that there is a possibility of reaching this unanimous verdict every time.
Last time, this unanimity was needed for us last year when we obtained candidate status along with seven criteria. Should we expect that a 'new seven criteria' will appear multiple times?
Believe me, once you start negotiations, there are going to be not only seven – there are going to be multiples of those various criteria.
This is the second point I wanted to make. It is a little bit misleading to call the process "negotiations", because the word "negotiation" means there is give and take, whereas in the case of joining the European Union, there is a massive body of laws, regulations, directives – the rules that bind the European Union together – and the country that is trying to join has to adopt all of that.
The actual negotiations are usually typically around the transition periods that you can negotiate to have to adopt this or that requirement. For example, environmental cleanup, or whatever in the past, whatever the issues were that were very difficult to do for the acceding countries, you negotiate these transition periods.
But in terms of Ukraine being bound by all the EU norms and rules, that’s not really up to negotiation.
Interviewed by Sergiy Sydorenko,
Video by Volodymyr Oliinyk