Ukraine's Route to EU Membership: One Year of Progress and Challenge
Written by Oksana Bidnenko and Ilakha Hakhramanova, Members of the Libertas Editorial Team
On June 23rd, 2022, Ukraine, together with Moldova, acquired candidate status for European Union membership. The historic culmination of a longstanding ambition, in spite of great adversity.
By affording Ukraine candidate status, the EU is demonstrating its support for the nation's territorial integrity and sovereignty while also reaffirming its commitment to advancing democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Ukrainians belong to the European family - something proven over the years through various demonstrations, such as the Revolution of Dignity, civil society initiatives, and which is continued nowadays on the battlefield by fighting for common values and a peaceful, secure future .
As mentioned by the European Council, the progress of Ukraine towards the European Union will depend on its own merit - in meeting the Copenhagen criteria, which includes democratic governance, protection of human rights and a functioning market economy.
In this article, we intend to break down the ambition of Ukraine (in what concerns EU membership), and scrutinise the progress it has made on multiple social and political fronts - despite toiling with the brutality of Russia’s aggression - and demonstrate that this merit is very much en route toward realisation.
Over the past 8 years, the process of anti-corruption reform has been actively taking place in Ukraine. The conclusion of the European Commission recognises the noteworthiness of Ukraine’s achievements: signing all key international conventions in the field of anti-corruption (in particular the UN Convention against Corruption); the implementation of international recommendations on corruption monitoring mechanisms, in particular GRECO; criminalization of all forms of corruption and adoption of legislation to eliminate conflicts of interest, protection for whistle-blowers, and the creation of anti-corruption institutions: the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office (SAP) and the Higher Anti-Corruption Court (HACC), inter alia.
The anti-corruption process has begun to actively target even high-ranking officials. Cases were brought against various individuals involved in prominent forms of corruption and money laundering for years - and a number have proceeded to court, notably the first episode of a high-level electricity case known as "Rotterdam+".
Issues with corruption and money laundering do, nonetheless, continue to stain Ukraine in some instances. In 2023, prominent cases involved the Mayor of Odessa Hennadiy Trukhanov (money laundering), and the former head of the Supreme Court Vsevolod Kniaziev (bribery). Even some successful cases returned only piecemeal justice - the illegal profit in the Trukhanov case was 92 million UAH, but the Court determined that it was enough to repay only 13 UAH millions to avoid detention.
Corruption and money laundering still remain the biggest obstacles for Ukraine - an ugly, festered legacy which developed in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution and throughout 30 years of oligarchic influence during the post-independence period. For now, Ukraine has developed an Anti-Corruption strategy for 2025, working with all of the sectors where corruption is found nowadays. Its objectives include: optimization of state functions, digital transformation, strengthening of legal responsibility, formation of public intolerance to corruption, and more .
It is hoped that this anti-corruption strategy will not only contribute to the creation of a corruption-free state, but will also positively affect Ukraine's ability to obtain membership in the European Union.
Rights of minorities
Regarding its many minorities, Ukraine first tabled in 1993 the draft Law on National Minorities, which soon became mired in political obfuscation. But with the advent of EU membership, the legislation was given renewed focus and in December 2022, it received the President's signature. The law defines a national minority (community) and declares that national minorities are "integral, integrated and organic parts of Ukrainian society" and that their cultures are a part of innate Ukrainian culture. The state, thus, has the authority to implement integration, but it does not assimilate representatives of national minorities and safeguards them from all sorts of prejudice. The right to self-identification, speaking in the minority language, freedom of public assembly, maintaining cultural identity, receiving education in one's mother tongue, etc. are all rights that people who identify as national minorities are entitled to .
During preparation of the law, the Ukrainian side consulted with relevant OSCE institutions and projects of the Council of Europe. The Venice Commission has welcomed the adoption of the law and offered forward suggestions - in order to further solidify and safeguard the legislation protecting minorities that Ukraine has now adopted.
On March 31st, 2023 a new Law on Media of Ukraine entered into force. The law is supposed to meet the standards of the EU Directive 2018/1808 (“AVMSD”), and standards set by the Council of Europe. The description of the criterion elaborates on the hope that Ukraine will be able to "overcome the influence of entities with vested interests", something which appeared in the list of EU demands in response to previous restrictions on the broadcasting of opposition TV channels. The EU did not directly advocate opposition interests, but instead decided to push for a reform that would reform the sector as a whole.
In May, the success of the media criterion is rated as 9 out of 10 by the analytical center “New Europe” which can be considered as a success 
Trade and energy policy
The EU is Ukraine's largest trade partner. The main exported goods are raw materials such as iron, steel, mining products, agricultural products, machinery and chemical products.
The Agreement on the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) between Ukraine and the EU - in effect since January 2016 - provides for a reduction in the tariffs that EU companies face when exporting to Ukraine. The agreement facilitates trade by improving the efficiency of customs procedures and gradually bringing Ukrainian legislation, rules and procedures, in line with EU standards .
For its part, Ukraine actively participates and makes efforts to enhance cooperation with the EU, aiming to improve efficiency. To achieve better integration with the EU market, Ukraine is aligning its legislation with EU norms and standards specifically for industrial and agro-food products. Additionally, Ukraine is harmonizing its legislation with EU regulations in various trade areas, including competition, technical barriers to trade (TBT), sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures, customs and trade facilitation, and protection of intellectual property rights.
The cooperation between the EU and Ukraine in the field of security is one of the most prominent in the recent developments in bilateral ties.
The EU had been cautious in its engagement with Ukraine in the security and defence field prior to Russia's invasion in 2022, focusing mainly on soft security threats and only providing non-lethal assistance in regards to hard security in 2021. It is thought that Russia took advantage of this cautious approach when it militarized the occupied Crimean peninsula.
The EU and its member states have now escalated external security and assistance to Ukraine - through sanctions, arm supplies, training of military personnel, and more. The EU has played a crucial role in the manifest Ukrainian resistance to Russia, and continues to do so.
Furthermore, there are new developments in the investigation of war crimes. Eurojust (the EU’s Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation) supports establishing the International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression (ICPA) to help war crime investigators in Ukraine secure evidence and facilitate case-building. Europol (the EU Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation) collaborates with Ukrainian law enforcement on enforcing EU sanctions and combating cybercrime, extremism, and human trafficking. Europol has established an Operational Taskforce of OSINT  experts to support war crimes investigations, and Operation OSCAR has been launched to cross-check sanctions lists against operational data between participating countries.
It is crucial for Western countries to continue supporting Ukraine to the fullest extent possible and not allow "war fatigue" to affect their political decisiveness. The outcome of the war in Ukraine can lead the EU to either a more unified and decisive strategic self-definition or a bitter acceptance that Europe's security interests cannot be adequately guaranteed .
Integration in the face of great adversity
Ukraine's journey towards European integration in the face of its brutal and unwarranted war is quite remarkable.
Despite facing a massive armed intervention from Russia and suffering heavy human and economic losses, Ukraine has secured candidate status and been actively working towards closer ties with the EU, not least through the implementation of the various provisions of its Association Agreement. This has remained its course, despite the persistent interference from Russia since long before its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Russia has persistently escalated various conflicts, fueling rivalries between great powers such as the United States and China, as well in other parts of the world. Russia is perhaps the most ardent among multiple nations with authoritarian elements which strive to establish themselves as leaders in the emerging global order. It is foreseeable that the ongoing confrontation between democracy and authoritarianism will significantly shape and influence the dynamics of global events in the near future. Russia's war against Ukraine caused a number of contractions that threaten not only Ukraine, but the whole world. The increase in the cost of energy resources, the crisis in the food market, the rise in price of consumer goods, and the spike in inflation from which few areas in the world have been save - all these can be traced back to the beginning of 2022, and Russia’s ground invasion of Ukraine.
As for Ukraine only, the outward flow of refugees has represented - naturally - a net negative on all fronts. Aside from a noteworthy brain drain, a dilution of Ukrainian culture and regional depopulation, the most pronounced consequence has hit the Ukrainian labour market. Today, and likely for some time in the future as well, Ukraine continues to suffer from a debilitating shortage of labour - with devastating consequences for the Ukrainian economy.
The blossoming relations between the EU and Ukraine
In spite of all this, Ukraine’s status as a candidate for EU accession marks the end of a long period of uncertainty in relations between Kyiv and Brussels, and represents a potential new dawn for Ukraine’s future.
In concrete terms, Ukraine - as a candidate country - now benefits from expanded access to the EU internal market; loans and grants through special instruments for carrying out reforms; access to individual EU funds and programmes; and increased opportunities for investment.
But what are the advantages of Ukraine's accession for the EU itself? It should be emphasised that Ukraine can contribute to the strengthening of the EU through the following aspects: energy, security and economic interests. First, economy. At present, a number of productions of European businesses are located in Southeast Asia - China, India, and Bangladesh. However, relocation of a significant part of European business to Ukraine is at once practical and mutually beneficial. Labour cost in Ukraine is lower, while the working conditions of workers are more standardized and therefore higher. Transport costs are lower compared to outsourced production in Southeast Asia. Massive potential benefits all around for EU producers.
At the same time, Ukraine has enormous potential not only as a supplier of raw materials, but also of foodstuffs. The ‘breadbasket of Europe’, Ukraine can increase food security and reduce the need for supplies from outside Europe, allowing added value to remain within the European Union and maintaining the sustainability of value added chains.
Now, energy. More than 60% of EU imports from Russia are energy resources. More than 40% of gas, 27% of oil and 46% of coal were imported by the EU from Russia, and this dependence has only grown over the past twenty years. But since joining ENTSO-E (the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity), Ukraine has become a reliable exporter of clean electricity in the EU, and also has the potential to develop its own green hydrogen, biogas and other renewable energy sources, the surplus generation of which can be exported to Europe. Something for EU leaders to consider.
On to security. The war has highlighted the exceptional fighting capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces, positioning them among the most effective in Europe. Presently, over a million individuals are actively defending Ukraine as part of its defence force, gaining invaluable military experience uncommon in Europe since the Second World War. The resilience and expertise demonstrated by the Ukrainian armed forces throughout this conflict have underscored their strength and effectiveness in the face of adversity. This experience can be extremely useful for increasing the EU's defense capabilities.
In November 2022, within the framework of the project "Ukraine on the way to the EU: realities and prospects", an absent round table was held, during which the Vice-Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine, Olga Stefanishyna, expressed quiet optimism about Ukraine's membership in EU:
"I can say with confidence that today, Ukraine is the driver of European integration processes in Europe. That drive, which we laid from February 28, 2022, revived the European Union's enlargement policy in general. Together with Ukraine, Moldova received candidate status. In fact, in the same period, the EU begins enlargement negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. Bosnia and Herzegovina came close to obtaining candidate status. Ukraine will continue to be a driver of processes in Europe, because we believe in the European project and will work to strengthen and strengthen it".
A new dawn for Ukraine in the EU
Europe has demonstrated its decisive support for Ukraine in the fight against the aggressor. A new page in the Ukraine-EU strategic partnership is forming, the main component of which is joint resistance to Russian intervention. But let not there be a perception that Ukraine's accession to the EU has advantages exclusively for Ukraine. In reality such cooperation is likely to develop both Ukraine and the European Union alike.
Ukraine's acquisition of candidate status for European Union membership is a significant step towards advancing democracy, human rights, and the rule of law internally. Ukraine has indeed made tangible recent progress in the development of democracy in the country.
Overall, the quality of fulfillment of the requirements given to Ukraine in order to start the membership negotiations, only the EU can fully assess. The EU's Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi told reporters in Stockholm that Ukraine was "on track” with its progress and had met "two out of seven conditions” required to become an EU member.
Sources Oksana Bidnenko
- History of Ukraine EU relations: https://minjust.gov.ua/m/istoriya-stanovlennya-vidnosin-ukraina-es .
- "Ukraine and the European Union" by the European External Action Service. Available at: https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage_en/2616/Ukraine%20and%20the%20EU
- European Council Conclusion on June 24th 2022: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/57442/2022-06-2324-euco-conclusions-en.pdf
- EU Commission's Recommendations for Ukraine's EU candidate status: https://www.eeas.europa.eu/delegations/ukraine/eu-commissions-recommendations-ukraines-eu-candidate-status_en?s=232 .
- Sergiy Sydorenko, “Candidate on minimums: Ukraine is failing its own plans to meet EU criteria”:https://www.eurointegration.com.ua/articles/2022/11/14/7150585/ .
- Mariya Boyko, “The court sent the mayor of Odesa Trukhanov to custody: the first details”, TSN: https://tsn.ua/ukrayina/mera-odesi-truhanova-sud-vidpraviv-pid-vartu-pershi-podrobici-2321242.html
- Daria Kaleniuk, “Why Ukraine’s Fight Against Corruption Scares Russia”, Foreign Policy https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/12/17/ukraine-russia-corruption-putin-democracy-oligarchs/.
- National Agency on Corruption Prevention, Anti-Corruption Strategy 2021-2025: https://nazk.gov.ua/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Antykoruptsijna-strategiya-na-2021-2025-rr.pdf
- Tetyana Voitiuk, “It will help to save up to 200 billion hryvnias every year. The Parliament adopted the Anti-Corruption Strategy”, Suspilne: https://suspilne.media/252077-parlament-uhvaliv-antikorupcijnu-strategiu-so-vona-peredbacae/
- Victoria Vlasenko, “The Law of Ukraine on National Minorities: Are There Grounds for Criticism?”, DW (2023): https://www.dw.com/uk/novij-zakon-ukraini-pro-nacmensini-ci-e-pidstavi-dla-kritiki/a-64300877 .
- Venice Commission. Opinion on the Law on National Minorities (Communities) CDL-AD(2023)021, June (2023): https://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-AD(2023)021-e
- Stanislav Secrieru, “The EU-Ukraine Security & Defence Cooperation: Think Bigger, Act Bolder”, Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies (2023): https://sceeus.se/en/publications/the-eu-ukraine-security-defence-cooperation-think-bigger-act-bolder/ .
- Europol official website: https://www.europol.europa.eu/europol%E2%80%99s-solidarity-ukraine .
- Ramon Loik, “A Second Front: EU-Ukraine Cooperation in the Internal Security Domain”, International Centre for Defence and Security: https://icds.ee/en/a-second-front-eu-ukraine-cooperation-in-the-internal-security-domain/.
Sources Ilakha Hakhramanova
- EU trade relations with Ukraine. Facts, figures and latest developments. URL: https://policy.trade.ec.europa.eu/eu-trade-relationships-country-and-region/countries-and-regions/ukraine_en
- EU-Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. URL: EU-Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area | Access2Markets (europa.eu)
- Regulation(EU) 2022/870 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 2022 on temporary trade-liberalisation measures supplementing trade concessions applicable to Ukrainian products under the Association Agreement between the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community and their Member States, of the one part, and Ukraine, of the other part. URL: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/eli/reg/2022/870
- Strengthen the EU: why Ukraine's membership is necessary for the European Union itself [Posylyty YeS: chomu chlenstvo Ukrainy potribne samomu Yevrosoiuzu]. URL: Посилити ЄС: чому членство України потрібне самому Євросоюзу | Європейська правда (eurointegration.com.ua)
- Ukraine on the way to the EU: realities and prospects [Ukraina na shliakhu do YeS: realii i perspektyvy]. The Oleksandr Razumkov Ukrainian Center for Economic and Political Research. [Ukrainskyi tsentr ekonomichnykh i politychnykh doslidzhen imeni Oleksandra Razumkova] National security and defense [Natsionalna bezpeka i oborona]. №1-2. 131 p. 2022. URL: https://razumkov.org.ua/images/journal/NSD187-188_2022_ukr_full.pdf
- Centre «New Europe», «Candidate Check-4: where Ukraine is in the implementation of 7 EU recommendations», May 2023. Available on: http://neweurope.org.ua/analytics/kandydat-check-4-de-ukrayina-perebuvaye-u-vykonanni-7-rekomendatsij-yes/
September 08 2023
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