It is likely that Ukraine and Moldova will get the green light to open European Union (EU) accession negotiations at the end of this year. Beyond that, there is little clarity on the timeline of the accession process, which, as the experience of Western Balkan candidates shows, can stretch for at least a decade.

It is therefore welcome to hear EU Council President Charles Michel proposing that the enlargement should happen by 2030. Yet questions remain. Apart from the hard work of political, legal and economic transformation required of all EU candidates, four political hurdles remain on the EU side, and they are unlikely to vanish as a result of the decision in December.

One is the uncomfortable fact that several existing member states, including the large economies at the heart of the EU, Germany, and France, do not see the possibility of new members joining before significant EU reform. This particularly concerns doing away with the unanimity requirement in foreign and security policy.

They have a point – the difficulty of making unanimous decisions is barely compatible with the swift and unified action required by the times. The need for unanimity has, for instance, allowed Hungary’s Victor Orbán to modify or block some of the sanction packages on Russia despite support from other EU members.

The German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has repeatedly indicated that enlargement is dependent on EU reform. This would include a change from the principle of unanimity among member states to the principle of qualified majority voting (QMV), at least in decisions on foreign policy and taxes.

The trouble is that there is no unity of vision and no workable compromise on EU reform so far. Many member states are reluctant to re-open up the founding Treaty of the EU, which would be a precondition for a wider use of QMV. This summer, the foreign ministers of Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovenia, and Spain proposed bypassing this difficulty by using the existing legal mechanisms of “constructive abstention” and the so-called passerelle clause, which allows the European Council to decide on a qualified majority vote rather than unanimity for foreign and security policy.

Then there is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the system of support and subsidies for the agricultural sector in the EU.

Historically, the CAP negotiations were dominated by two large blocks of countries — those who supported large direct payments to farmers and those who opposed them. But this has now been replaced by a logic of ad hoc alliances (on issues such as social conditionality, eco regulation, and redistribution of aid).

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Should the current system of direct payments to farmers based on hectares be preserved, a very substantial chunk of EU taxpayers’ money would go to large conglomerates managing significant portions of Ukraine’s enormous agricultural sector. In 2020, the 117 largest companies controlled 16% (6.45m ha or 16m acres) of all agricultural land in Ukraine, however, their share may have increased after the opening of the land market in 2021 and is likely to increase further in 2024 when it officially opens to companies.

Experts commissioned by ARC 2020, representing the European agricultural and rural sectors, suggest that two scenarios are possible for the Ukrainian agricultural sector in the EU: an ecologically and socially resilient farming and food system aiming for integrated rural development, or the dominance of agro-industrial giants. The latter would be the logical outcome of direct payments per hectare.

The fact remains that if Ukraine joins, the CAP budget will either have to be increased dramatically or will evaporate, given the sheer area of agricultural land in the country (it’s bigger than the whole of Italy), with the average farm taking up about 1,000 hectares compared to 16 hectares in the rest of the EU. No one among the current EU members has been able to offer a viable solution so far. Yet there is just no way to avoid it; the issue is too big.

One of the alternatives to fast-track Ukrainian accession is reaching an agreement on Ukraine’s permanent access to the single market and the digital market before the enlargement process is complete. Other sectoral agreements, for example integrating Ukraine bit by bit into the European Green Deal and foreign and security policy, could also serve as intermediate stages of the accession process. However, the pressure of Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia to extend an EU ban on Ukrainian grain imports indicates the scale of difficulties when it comes to supporting Ukraine’s de facto integration into the single market.

Finally, there is the neighborhood policy of Ukraine’s more troublesome Central European neighbor, Hungary. Much Hungarian media, heavily influenced by the government, present Ukraine’s national minority policies as unacceptably substandard, while politicians highlight allegations of mistreatment through speeches and visits. It is likely that Hungary will raise the issue of national minority legislation in Ukraine before the decision to take further steps towards Ukraine’s accession is made.

None of these four obstacles are insurmountable. However, taken together, they could slow down Ukraine’s European integration. They require a serious and meticulous approach by Ukraine and the supporters of its EU membership.

These are not minor hurdles to be taken in one’s stride – rather, each one requires a clear-eyed political strategy, a readiness to search for unorthodox solutions, and keeping the big picture in focus.

Marija Golubeva is a Distinguished Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She was a Member of the Latvian Parliament (2018-2022) and was Minister of the Interior from 2021-2022. A public policy expert, she has worked for ICF, a consultancy company in Brussels, and also as an independent consultant for European institutions in the Western Balkans and Central Asia.    

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