Yevhen Borisov, head of the Odessa recruitment office, at a trial in kyiv on July 25. Global Images Ukraine (Global Images Ukraine via Getty )
The flag of the European Union flies on many buildings in free Ukraine. In town halls, schools and companies. It even flew over the center of Kherson on the day in November 2022 that the city was liberated from the Russian invader. The blue and the stars of the EU are a symbol of a better future for the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians, according to the polls. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, has set a date for this Monday so that, in his words, what today is a dream becomes a reality: 2030 is the deadline that has been set to address the many times announced extension of the EU.
Ukraine has seven years ahead to carry out the deep reforms that must guarantee access to the EU. The challenge is daunting for a country suffering the bloodiest large-scale war in decades, with close to 20% of its territory in the hands of the Russian army and dependent on international aid. The European Commission raises to 65,000 million euros the aid that the EU and its Member States have provided to Ukraine. Only the United States has transferred aid valued at 104,000 million euros. But the Russian invasion also accelerated Ukraine’s recognition as a candidate by the EU, in June 2022, a goal the country had claimed at various times over three decades, since shortly after its independence.
The European Commission has established seven points that the candidate must meet to start accession negotiations. kyiv’s goal was to meet these requirements by 2023, but Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Olga Stefanishina admitted on August 17 that they would not succeed. The Prime Minister, Denís Shmihal, stated last January that he aspired to join the EU in two years, but the reality is more complex: on June 22, the European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy, Olivér Várhelyi, already warned that Ukraine only complied for the moment with two of the seven points to start the negotiations.
The two aspects that Brussels considers favorably are linked to legal reforms promoted by the president, Volodímir Zelenski. On the one hand, Várhelyi remarked that the new law regulating the media market complies with EU standards, especially the obligation of communication companies to declare who their owners are in order to reduce the power of the class oligarch.
Brussels welcomes the law, but organizations defending the right to information have criticized it. Organizations such as the International Federation of Journalists, the European Federation of Journalists or the Independent Media Union of Ukraine have warned that the rule gives great power to the sector’s regulatory body, dependent on the Government, to close media outlets that endanger State security, among other conditions that this body must assess. Media critics of Zelenski, such as Pravda, have also pointed out that private television groups affiliated with the presidency are receiving irregular favored treatment.
The European Commission is also satisfied with the reform of the Higher Council of Justice of Ukraine, which gives it more independence, and of the Commission for the Selection of Judges, “which is working on a system of selection based on merit.” Várhely conceded that there has been progress in introducing rules to guarantee the independence of the Constitutional Court.
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But the path to consolidate a separation of powers and a fully democratic judicial system is difficult, as evidenced by the long time it took Zelenski —more than two years— to appoint the anti-corruption prosecutor in 2022, or the arrest last May of the president of the Supreme Court, Vsevolod Knyazev, accused of receiving a bribe of 2.5 million euros to decide a sentence in favor of the oligarch Kostiantin Zhevago.
Equate corruption with treason
The fight against corruption is one of the points that the Commission stresses that Ukraine still has a lot to improve. Corruption cases happen monthly. In August, Zelensky removed all the heads of the provincial military recruitment offices in the face of accumulating evidence of fraudulent efforts to join the ranks. The president announced this Sunday in a televised interview that he would propose to the Rada – the Ukrainian Parliament – that it approve a law that equates corruption in wartime with the crime of treason.
Other demands Ukraine needs to make progress on is money laundering and reform of the oligarchs’ power system. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, a legal and political power vacuum ensued in which major public industrial assets passed into the hands of a few businessmen. These people continue to have a decisive influence on the development of Ukrainian business and political life. In an interview this Monday with EL PAÍS, Mark Savchuk, adviser to the National Council of the Ukraine National Anti-Corruption Office, warned that despite the fact that improvements have been evident since 2014, the level of corruption is very high and the country is far from to comply with EU standards.
One of the most sensitive points that Brussels demands from kyiv – and in which it perceives the least progress – is respect for national minorities and, above all, the use of their languages. These minorities include, among others, the Hungarian groups in the Transcarpathian region, the Roma people, the Jews, the Romanians or the Tatars. But also to the Belarusian population and, above all, to those who use Russian, a language that, despite its extensive use, is not recognized as an official language. Russia’s invasion of the country further complicates the situation.
Michel stated in his speech on Monday that the most difficult thing about the enlargement of the EU is for citizens to feel the Union “in their hearts”. In Ukraine this is a challenge of the first order. In an information published last February by EL PAÍS, prominent Ukrainian experts stressed that the country’s Soviet past and the unsuccessful decades of negotiations to get closer to the EU kept the majority of the population far from feeling European. Another major obstacle will be, as the President of the European Council has indicated, that the entry into the EU of candidates such as Ukraine will force countries that are today net beneficiaries of community economic funds to cease to be so. Poland, Ukraine’s faithful ally in its defense in the war, has defended tooth and nail applying tariffs on agricultural products from the neighboring country, ignoring petitions against the European Commission.
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