Current EU Ambassador Matti Maasikas began working in Ukraine in the autumn of 2019.
It was a period after the elections and a complete reset of power in Kyiv, in which some (including the ambassador himself) saw an opportunity, while others saw a threat. Hardly anyone could have imagined the crisis that began only half a year later – first due to the pandemic, then due to the full-scale Russian invasion.
Processes within the Ukrainian government were not always pleasant for the EU. But the large-scale war reset everything. European capitals finally understood that European integration was not a whim but the aspiration of millions. Ukraine eventually was granted candidate status, which it had unsuccessfully sought for years.
But does this mean that the turbulent period in Ukraine-EU relations is already over?
Matti Maasikas warns that on the very first day after victory, the Ukrainian authorities will have to make difficult decisions. However, he is confident that Ukraine will still join the EU. The ambassador spoke with the European Pravda editor Sergiy Sydorenko before completing his four-year mission in Ukraine, which will end in the coming days.
"Ukraine will be in the EU, 100%"
- You found yourself in Ukraine during a period of terrible unprecedented events. But surely there was something that stood out the most during these four years?
- These were indeed very emotional four years. I believe that Ukraine and in Ukraine, you can only work emotionally.
I will never forget many things that I experienced in Ukraine. But I highlight two moments.
The visit to recently liberated Kherson in November last year, 10 days after the liberation. There was nothing. No electricity, no water. No shop was open. The Russians were shelling just three kilometres away from Kherson, shelled constantly. Our group of diplomats was welcomed. You could see people having hope again. You could see kids waving to our bus when we were driving in the city. It was something very, very emotional.
And then a positive side. The moment when the flag of the European Union was brought to the Verkhovna Rada Plenary Hall on July 1 last year. How it was greeted.
How important this moment was just a week after Ukraine was officially granted the candidate status.
The flag stays there.
- This event, and especially Ukraine’s candidate status, had a very significant impact on Ukraine. Let me ask upfront: will Ukraine join the EU?
- Of course! 100%.
- When will this happen?
- I am not able to give you a date.
In the EU accession process, almost everything depends on the candidate. On you. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, has recently voiced a very accurate and encouraging term: 'on the future member country.' So, it depends on how you do your 'homework'.
- President Michel also mentioned a year in that speech: 2030. Is that the year when the EU is supposed to expand?
- It could be.
If you recall it, President Michel was talking about both, the future member states and the EU itself to be ready for enlargement by that date. It is not bad to set goals, some deadlines. This helps to focus minds and tackle the issues that need to be dealt with more determination and precision.
However, it's actually quite good that you set goals for yourself, some dates. This helps to focus efforts on addressing the necessary issues with much greater determination and precision.
I'll give you an example.
Our negotiations were still underway and nobody had given us any date in Estonia in 1999.
So, this new government stated that that Estonia wants to be ready for membership by the end of 2001. Everybody was asking, well, how and what has Brussels said. The Prime Minister said that we were talking about our readiness, that helped us focus. Estonia was pretty much ready for membership by the end of 2001.
- So Ukraine should set a goal for itself?
- Why not?
"What is this if not a turbo regime?"
- What gives you confidence that Ukraine will be in the EU? We see Hungary's actions, hear Austria's ideas, have a dispute with Poland, and it doesn't seem like everyone is waiting for us in the EU.
- Because the EU has risen to the occasion. It's not just Ukraine and the Ukrainian people who surprised everyone by being ready to fight against this terrible aggression. But the EU has also grown during this time.
You know very well that several things the EU has done since February 24 of last year were unthinkable just the day before. The new push for EU enlargement is one of them.
The second element is the persistent and strong support that the EU gives to Ukraine
The Eurobarometer survey from the spring of 2023 showed that nearly 70% of people support their government's policy and the EU's policy towards Ukraine. This is more than a year after the start of the full-scale invasion!
There were many fears about the 'Ukraine fatigue' not only in Kyiv, but the support of EU citizens is rock solid.
It also helps European democratic governments support Ukraine.
- By the way, you said once that in March 2022, after the EU summit in Paris, it became clear that Ukraine would be in the EU.
-That was indeed the turning point. It's true.
Although not everyone (among the participants – Ed.) realised it at the time.
- In 2019, in our first interview, we discussed the 'turbo regime.' How do you see it now? Did it work back then?
- Agree that during the turbo regime, a lot of laws were adopted. Let's say that even some of them had to be slightly corrected afterwards.
The term "turbo regime" is not used anymore, but some things are still similar to it now. For example, the implementation of the EU seven recommendations were done at a high speed.
Or how you prepared responses to the European Commission's questionnaire. Normally, it takes countries from 8 to 12 months. How long did Ukraine take? 10 days? If this isn't a 'turbo regime', then what is it?
- Is it possible to return to the turbo regime now, during the negotiations for Ukraine's EU accession?
- You will see that the negotiation process will mainly consist of the adoption and implementation of acquis communitaire by Ukraine.
There are issues not only about the adoption but also implementation with the track record.
- This cannot be achieved through the turbo regime...
- There are parts in this process that can be done very quickly. Although there are some that obviously cannot be.
So, here it will take a cool head on both the Ukrainian and EU sides to determine these things and understand to what extent Ukraine needs to demonstrate this track record.
Another thing that, I hope, will be a bit different from how we operate now between the EU and Ukraine.
Now (and for a long time!), interaction between Ukrainians and their Western partners often follows a pattern. Ukrainians sit down and say, "We need this, this, and this. Can you give us that?" And we, as Western partners and Ukraine’s donors, say, "In order to give you the money, you need to do this, this, and this."
Instead, we very rarely gather with you and simply consult. We rarely say, "Let's discuss together what and how we can do to help Ukraine benefit from quality reforms, and we benefit from our neighbor to become a better place."
The EU negotiations will provide an opportunity of interaction where one side is not constantly on the offensive and the other side is defending.
"I am not blind and deaf. I see have the issues."
- To start accession negotiations, Ukraine must fulfil seven EU recommendations. Where are we now in their implementation? And what are our most urgent tasks?
- President Zelenskyy did my job, answering this question. The President addressed the political class, the Verkhovna Rada members, asking for three laws necessary to fulfil the seven EU recommendations: the restoration of asset declaration, a redefinition of politically exposed persons, and a law on education.
I am convinced, my colleagues in Brussels, will be able to positively assess Ukraine's compliance with the seven recommendations and recommend that EU member states start negotiations with Ukraine.
- The Venice Commission delegates the assessment of some of the EU's recommendations. They assessed the law on deoligarchization, judges of the Constitutional Court, and minorities. Do you know that in Ukraine, the "Venice Commission" and its decisions are no longer respected?
- And why did that happen?
- Because its assessments are far from reality and often distort the facts.
- I won't speak on behalf of the Venice Commission or assess its recommendations. But it remains the gold standard in matters of constitutional law.
I am not blind and deaf. I have seen these issues.
In the end, we have always managed to find a middle ground. Some of the laws, for which we asked the Venice Commission for its opinion, still are possible to fix. The European Union still gave a positive assessment of these laws.
- You understand that, for example, in the law on minorities, Ukraine will not implement the Venice Commission's recommendations. As an example, we will not "protect the rights of the Russian-speaking minority." During the genocidal war that began under the banner of "protecting Russian speakers," this became impossible. Fullstop. But the Venice Commission, so to speak, says, "You will not join the EU until you do this."
- You saw this during this war and even before it: there is indeed a lot of sympathy and understanding for Ukraine within the EU. The EU understands the unique situation Ukraine finds itself in.
I am convinced there will be a solution.
We believe that the language of education in Ukraine has been tackled and is moving forward on. The EU recognises this.
- Is Ukraine successful in combatting corruption?
- When it comes to corruption, you need to first dispel stereotypes, such as the international image that has persisted since the time of Yanukovych and even the 1990s.
But, if we talk about the substance, Ukraine started dealing genuinely with corruption after the Revolution of Dignity. The institutions and agencies created back then are working well. This is evident in the results of their work and in their stability. For example, Artem Sytnyk, the head of NABU (National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine), was the first leader of a law enforcement agency in Ukraine to serve a full term of 7 years. That’s a good sign. New heads of these institutions are selected according to very high standards.
Another element in the fight against corruption is the determination of the political class, the politicians' desire to genuinely combat corruption.
Another litmus test will see during the last days and weeks. I am talking about the issue with the restoration of electronic declarations for officials and the redefinition of politically exposed persons (the interview was conducted on Tuesday, before the vote in the Verkhovna Rada). (Editor's note: the interview took place on Tuesday, before the parliamentary vote).
And there is a third element...
- I want to revisit the issue of asset declarations. Is there an EU requirement for them to be public?
- There is no categorical requirement. We understand the unique situation, and we understand that during a full-scale war, there must be restrictions. We have been throughout this process very open with our Ukrainian partners how to find a compromise here.
The third element in the fight against corruption. It's the demand from journalists, anti-corruption activists, and the entire Ukrainian society that rose up against corruption.
You are well aware that last winter, when the first corruption scandal broke out in the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine. There were serious deliberations about whether it is patriotic to go public with this type of things this during a full-scale war... Your colleagues decided to take this step.
It shows to me that corruption in Ukraine has become an unpatriotic matter.
Instead, there is a popular demand to root it out. This demand exists and will remain. So, I say that for me, this glass is more than half full.
"I want to be on the Maidan on Victory Day"
- Ukrainian opposition accuses Ukraine of moving away from the Copenhagen criteria required for EU accession because the opposition's rights are limited, and they lack access to the airwaves. Do you feel that there is a real danger here?
- First of all, I see and sense very strong unity in Ukraine during the war.
When I see the political processes in the Verkhovna Rada, it may seem that unity is not the same as it was, say, in March-April of last year. But it pretty much exists.
However, I think I understand the deeper meaning of your question.
- It's about the fact that after the war, we need to be able to restore democratic standards.
- Many things that need to be on the first day after the victory will require a very high level of statesmanship, balance, and generosity.
So, yes, I agree. You are absolutely right.
- We cannot bypass the issue of the war. You know for sure that Ukraine will win.
- Can you say that this victory will only be possible with the return of Crimea and Donbas? That's what 90% of Ukrainians believe.
- The definition of victory is for Ukrainians.
- Why are Europeans so afraid to say these words? It's very disappointing. We Ukrainians have already made up our minds, and you know it. Why not say, "Yes, victory is impossible until Crimea is returned under the constitutional authority of Ukraine"?
- The European Union has repeated dozens, if not hundreds of times, that we support Ukraine in restoring its territorial integrity within the borders of 1991.
- It's not about that. As an Estonian, you know that you cannot recognise the occupation of Estonia for 70 years and still live peacefully next to the USSR!
- (pause) I am convinced that Ukraine will restore its territorial integrity during this war. And this is the aim we support Ukraine in achieving during this war.
- You will soon leave Ukraine, stepping down from your position as an ambassador. Do you have plans or dreams related to Ukraine?
- I want to be on the Maidan on Victory Day.
That's my main dream.
And I am sure that this day will come, and it will happen not in such a distant future.
Interviewed by Sergiy Sydorenko,
Video by Volodymyr Oliinyk,