It’s no surprise that amidst the noise of the mercenary mutiny in Russia, the European Commission’s oral assessment of Ukraine’s progress toward membership went unnoticed.  

And yet the steps that Ukraine and it’s European Union (EU) partners are undertaking — and the potential stumbling blocks along that path — could be just as important for the war’s ultimate settlement and the just and lasting peace that should be its cornerstone, as current military developments. 

In the midst of a historic war of national survival fought against nuclear power, many Ukrainians also fight on a second frontline: an internal, sometimes vicious struggle to reform the post-Soviet independent state, its institutions, and elites, making them more accountable, more democratic, more rule of law-abiding and public service driven. This is an extremely difficult process and will become harder as Ukraine approaches membership following what it hopes will be the opening of negotiations in December. 

One year after member states granted Ukraine candidate status, the Commission has concluded that Ukraine has made significant efforts to implement all seven conditions — that is, measures to reform the Constitutional Court, the judiciary, media, anti-money laundering, anti-corruption, a so-called anti-oligarch law and legislation on national minorities. It deems that Ukraine has fully met two conditions — on the judiciary and media reform — and acknowledged progress on the others while noting that many more steps are expected. 

In Kyiv, both in official circles and civil society, even in sectors critical of the government, EU membership is seen as something that Ukraine is entitled to given its heroic defense of Europe, as a reward for progress on reforms (requiring also an EU conditionality-based framework to incentivize more such progress), and also as a key strategic step that would contribute to victory. Earlier this year, this ambition was seen as perhaps too much even for hardball-playing Ukrainians to ask, but it is now increasingly seen as a possibility, if contingent on Ukraine delivering on all reforms required by the EC opinion, amongst other factors. 

The goal? During my visits to the country, Ukrainians tell me they want a country whose citizens can have more opportunities so that they do not have to migrate, and one where ideally many of the 8 million who have departed since February 2022 can one day safely return to “a more normal European country.” One with less prodazhnist (a buzzword for the pervasiveness of corruption in the Ukrainian public system) and where proizvol (a Russian term tantamount to impunity for the ruling elite) is a relic of the past. A past associated with the failed model Putin still seeks to violently impose on Ukraine as a vassal state.  

This second, non-military frontline is no easy fight. There are signs that actors in the systema — the powerful who run things behind the façade of some institutions — are re-emerging, unshaken by the existential threat the country faces. Only last month the head of the Supreme Court was arrested on large-scale bribery charges. Cases like this are a reminder of other Ukraine — not the dignified and valiant country, but one associated with corruption, reckless appropriation of public assets, and, at times, violence. That justifies misgivings among its partners and could still taint its future. Ukrainians who, at the prime of their youth, fight that systema — and the Russian army too, sometimes paying with their lives — are scathing: about “they” (these “hopeless” elites and their vested interests) and the need to root them out.  

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As someone who has engaged with the ups and downs of reforms and democratization in Ukraine since the Revolution of Dignity, it is a challenge to find the right balance between seeing the glass half full or half empty.  

It is certain that Ukraine’s path to the EU will be rocky, as explained in a new report I co-coordinated with the Kyiv-based Ukrainian Centre for European Policy. There also is the delicate issue of EU internal reform, at least to the level required to make new accessions work while preserving the EU’s functionality.  

EU reform (especially more decision-making by a qualified majority) is a no-go for the same Central European countries pushing for a fast track for Ukraine. National interests will surely be stumbling blocks too — the recent grain export crisis triggered by some EU countries against tariff-free Ukrainian agricultural products is a potential harbinger of things to come. 

Meanwhile, Ukraine will need to pass and implement perhaps thousands of pieces of legislation to comply with the EU acquis. In this respect, institutional overstretch and brain drain due to war are huge challenges. A young Ukrainian expert working at the Rada, the national parliament, recounted how he spent time on the phone asking buddies to come back to work in one of the new EU integration projects, for lower salaries. Moreover, the integration will ultimately entail huge social costs: there will be winners and losers, a topic notably absent in the Ukrainian public space. And yet the sense of political opportunity is right there. 

One other key aspect that the EU cannot fix alone is the need for plausible security guarantees for Ukraine: either from NATO or groups of its members. It is now unrealistic to think of any settlement that leaves Ukraine in a grey zone. This is unacceptable for Ukrainians and a majority of Europeans, as polls show: it would also encourage further Russian aggression. EU membership in the future would be another form of security guarantee — even if this still leaves open the question of the immediate future. 

Europe is changing. The EU was never conceived to include the Baltics, South-Easterners, or my own country, Spain. But its future cannot be conceived without them all — and without Ukraine. Contingent on some sort of military victory, Ukraine could over time re-emerge as an activist power in Eastern Europe, with resources critical for the EU’s goal of strategic autonomy (including agricultural resources, rare earth metals, as an IT hub and its intellectual capital.) Hence the narrative of EU membership for Ukraine is not just one of fairness and victimhood: it is one of agency and strategic vision.  

If member states truly believe that Ukraine will one day, in a not-so-distant future, join their ranks, and Ukraine manages to truly reform over time, the chances are there. This future perspective is compatible with the EU banging on Ukrainian elites now. As a Ukrainian judicial expert put it in one recent evening in Kyiv, at the beginning of yet another air alarm: “Do not lower your EU standards.” 

Borja Lasheras is a Non-resident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) He is a Special Adviser for Ukraine to the European External Action Service (EEAS). He served in the Spanish Presidency of the Government from 2018—2021 and was ultimately the Senior Foreign Policy Advisor. 

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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