November 3, 2023 - 12:45pm

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock yesterday gave her support to Ukraine’s accession to the EU. She expressed her confidence that, at a summit in December, the European Council will announce the opening of membership negotiations with Ukraine. 

Such vocal endorsement from a European powerhouse is a rare piece of good news for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — he has frequently made impassioned pleas for his country to join the EU and stressed that Ukraine’s rightful place is in Europe. 

Ukraine may well receive membership — eventually. European diplomats have admitted that, with Ukraine granted candidate status in June 2022, the EU can be expected to give the green light to negotiations in December and the political momentum is too overwhelming for members to protest. 

However, numerous challenges stand in Ukraine’s way, with European diplomats concerned that an expanded union of 30 or more states could be too bloated to function effectively. As such, Baerbock is collaborating with members and accession countries to formulate reform proposals. But with EU countries already having vastly different initial ideas, finding a compromise is likely to be challenging.

Underlying every reform is the fact that Ukraine would be significantly less prosperous than most of its EU bedfellows: last year, it had a GDP per capita of $4,534, compared with $48,433 in Germany, and the country would arrive still scarred from war. Internal EU projections for an enlarged union encompassing Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and six western Balkan states have estimated that Kyiv would be entitled to approximately €186 billion over seven years. 

This would have serious ramifications for existing member states, requiring cuts in farm subsidies of around 20%. The new entrants’ eligibility for money to improve infrastructure in poorer states would also mean the Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta no longer qualify for such funding. 

Perhaps anticipating resistance from these countries, Baerbock has proposed giving Ukraine and other accession countries early benefits before full membership — but the EU does not intend to offer a fast-tracked process. When Brussels granted Ukraine membership candidate status, it outlined seven conditions for commencing negotiations, including that the country “further strengthen the fight against corruption”.

This is clearly a sticking point. Next week, the European Commission will publish a report on accession countries’ progress towards membership. Officials say that it will recommend opening negotiations with Ukraine, but rigidly demand progress on anti-corruption measures, as well as an independent judiciary and minority rights. And while Zelenskyy has spearheaded a visible crackdown against corruption, his country still ranks at 116 on the Corruption Perceptions Index, and a presidential advisor recently commented that officials are still “stealing like there’s no tomorrow”. Such reforms, then, would be difficult and time-consuming for a government to implement at any time, never mind in the midst of armed conflict. 

In August, European Council President Charles Michel claimed that the EU should be ready to enlarge by 2030. Three months later, it appears he was being excessively optimistic. For all the bluster and charged rhetoric, a long road lies ahead before Ukraine can take its place at the European table.