Volodymyr Zelenskyy renewed on Tuesday his appeal to move forward Ukraine’s ambitious bid to join the European Union.
In a virtual address to the College of European Commissioners, presided by Ursula von der Leyen, the Ukrainian leader made it clear his country expects formal negotiations to begin before the end of the year after having been declared a candidate in June 2022.
Accession talks are a complex undertaking that is split into 35 thematic chapters designed to align the applicant’s national legislation with that of the bloc. The process spans several years and can easily stall due to a lack of progress or political will.
“For Ukraine, this is a top priority – to be ready for a political decision to start negotiations on EU membership this year. And I hope it is the same for the European Union,” the Ukrainian president said, according to a transcript provided by his office.
“We have laid a solid basis for this. The goal now is very special. If we can get rid of grey geopolitical zones, we must do it!”
Zelenskyy’s appeal was not coincidental as it was delivered weeks before the European Commission is set to release its annual enlargement report in which Ukraine’s efforts to meet seven pre-conditions will be evaluated.
The report will then be used by European leaders to decide the next step, most likely during a two-day EU summit scheduled for mid-December. Any decision will have to be agreed upon by unanimity.
The Commission said in the summer that the war-torn nation had already fully met two requirements, those related to reforms of high-level judicial bodies and the media sector. Work is ongoing in the other four areas: the Constitutional Court, the fight against corruption, the prevention of money laundering, the mitigation of the excessive influence exerted by oligarchs, and the protection of national minorities.
In his speech, Zelenskyy gave a brief overview of the progress made so far, saying the country had implemented the pre-conditions “as quickly as possible to enable a political decision to open accession negotiations already this year.”
“We have done a lot, and I would say – much more than could be expected from a country that has been subjected to full-scale aggression,” he told Commissioners. “But Ukraine is not asking for political discounts – we demonstrate the necessary political pace.”
The president spoke of “grey zones” multiple times during his intervention, a reference that can be read as a warning against leaving Ukraine stranded in an enlargement limbo, as it happened with other EU candidates in the past, like Turkey and Serbia.
“If there is even the smallest grey geopolitical zone – claims to dominate this zone will inevitably arise. And various political forces will try to paint this grey zone in their own political colours,” he said.
Besides accession, Zelenskyy asked the Commission to speed up its promised plan to use the immobilised assets of the Russian Central Bank to pay for Ukraine’s reconstruction, which the executive keeps delaying despite pressure from Washington.
The project is considered high-risk and ridden with legal pitfalls as it entails the managing of sovereign assets protected under international law.
Zelenskyy also urged the Commission to beef up the sanctions regime against Russia and punish those who help the Kremlin evade the 12 rounds of penalties imposed by the bloc since February 2022. Cracking down on circumvention has become a top priority in Brussels, with scrutiny on neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Serbia and Armenia, as well as China.
“Every sanction imposed must be one hundred percent effective,” Zelenskyy said.
In a short post on social media following the College meeting, Ursula von der Leyen said a new tranche of €1.5 billion in EU assistance had just been released, bringing the bloc’s support for Ukraine to “almost €83 billion” since the start of the war. (The figure is a broad computation that includes the funds allocated to host Ukrainian refugees.)
Member states and the European Parliament are currently assessing a new proposal to set up a €50-billion facility to sustain Ukraine’s budgetary needs in the long term. The facility will combine non-repayable grants and low-interest loans.
“We will keep standing by Ukraine,” von der Leyen said. “We continue working on accession and reconstruction.”
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