So now we know. Or at least we know more about the progress of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia toward opening accession talks on EU membership. And while there’s fairly good news for the first two, the picture is darker for Georgia.

In late June, Europe’s Neighborhood and Enlargement commissioner, Olivér Várhelyi, made public the European Commission’s (EC’s) informal notes. As summaries go, it made for a dry reading, except that every sentence on the three countries’ performance on their to-do lists contains the seeds of success or failure of the most momentous EU enlargement plan so far.

It is true that ultimately all decisions to open accession talks are political, and with so many national interests involved, the path ahead is inevitably muddy. But one thing is fairly certain — that failure to complete the “homework” set by the European Commission will make things easier for the naysayers, and harder for the candidates.

In view of this, it matters that both Ukraine and Moldova are seen by the European Commission as on track to complete the necessary steps by the end of this year – and that Georgia is unlikely to join the candidates’ group anytime soon.

Ukraine, despite the war and the devastation caused by Russia, is leading the pack – mostly due to the legacy of pre-war reforms. The areas still presenting the greatest challenge include measures limiting the influence of oligarchs, anti-money laundering legislation and institutions, and creating a legal framework for national minorities that answers to the (rather high) Council of Europe requirements.

For two of these items, the anti-oligarch law and the law on national minorities, the EU’s go-to arbiter is a Council of Europe body known as the Venice Commission. Its official name, European Commission for Democracy through Law, indicates its mandate – pronouncing where legislation adopted by member states meets its rule of law provisions.

In June, the Venice Commission published its assessment of the Ukrainian Law on National Minorities, finding that it still falls short of meeting 2017 recommendations on the reform of minority education. Like other countries that have experienced the Soviet education system, Ukraine has inherited a complicated legacy of separate schooling in Russian. Today its school system also offers teaching in Hungarian, Romanian, and other minority languages.

Seeking to limit the influence of Russia after the illegal capture of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine has planned a gradual transition of its entire education system to the Ukrainian language. This, however, irks not only Russia but also Ukraine’s immediate EU neighbor, Hungary, which presents a real political problem.

The moderate critique of Ukrainian legislation by the Venice Commission has been presented by Hungarian state media as outright damning. Other items that the Commission found dubious include norms limiting freedom of assembly and a special clause forbidding members of national minority communities to cooperate with state or non-state actors seeking to dismember Ukraine on undermining its constitutional order. While the ban on such cooperation is fully legitimate, it is indeed strange that the provision is specifically targeted at members of national minorities.

While Ukraine has signaled its readiness to compromise by delaying the school reform, it is not clear whether Hungary may not use national minority legislation as a pretext to block the opening of accession talks. The two countries have a deeply troubled relationship and the tiny minority (around 130,000 Hungarian speakers in a population of 44 million) gives Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s nationalist government a powerful lever in its continuing war of words with Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s administration.

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The anti-oligarchs law passed before the war in 2021, has also been criticized by the Venice Commission. Its aim to limit the rights of overly powerful individuals is the opposite of systemic safeguards that should prevent excessive and unfair individual influence on political and economic life.

As the Commission has aptly put it, speaking also of a similar law adopted in Moldova, “This is the great paradox of de-oligarchization laws in the form they are currently proposed: If the administration and the judiciary are strong and independent enough to support the implementation of ‘personal measures’ of the kind described, then such measures are no longer needed because the preconditions are met to deploy a much more systemic and effective strategy.”

Issues related to good governance and the rule of law are also on the to-do list for Moldova. Having largely copied Ukraine’s anti-oligarch law, it has similarly (but much earlier) found itself harshly criticized, and has already found an alternative. Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi in his remarks to the press went so far as to state that “regarding the de-oligarchization, Moldova adopted a systemic approach.”

Three out of the nine steps requested by the EC from Moldova have already been completed. Out of those remaining, the vetting of judges (to ensure their integrity), public administration reform, and the fight against organized crime remain the most difficult to complete.

Moldova needs to adopt secondary legislation for the Law on Preventing and Combating Money Laundering (AML), not least because the lack of these measures means that fugitive oligarchs acting as proxies for Russia can channel money into the country to organize paid protests against the pro-European government.

Public administration reform is difficult due to the massive brain drain, with many qualified professionals having left the country due to poverty and low wages. The overhaul of public administration needs to come together with a hefty rise in salaries, supported by the EU and other donors if need be.

Overall, the main lesson from the opinions of both the EC and the Venice Commission on the two candidate countries is pretty straightforward: it is not enough to have political determination to follow the rule of law and to combat oligarchs. You also need strong, independent institutions. Good governance needs investment in independent and professional courts and civil service. There are no shortcuts.

The notes on Georgia, which is not yet a candidate country, but has been presented with 12 steps to complete, are more pessimistic. While complying with many technical requirements concerning legislation and somewhat lowering the degree of political polarization, Georgia has continued to slide back on its democratic commitments on several fronts. Failure to protect human rights, especially of vulnerable minorities, was demonstrated again on July 8, when the LGBT Pride festival was disrupted by physical violence. Georgia has failed, so far, to ensure the full independence of electoral institutions and courts, and has not restored its membership in the OECD anti-corruption network. On media pluralism and (possibly arbitrary) criminal persecution of media owners, there is no progress whatsoever. The profoundly illiberal foreign agents legislation was only abandoned after a huge backlash from the Georgian public and Western states.

It is unlikely that Georgia will step up its performance by October when a fuller and broader analysis by the European Commission is due. For Ukraine and Moldova, however, success in this first and important step toward EU membership may be within reach.

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.   

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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