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The state of the Ukraine-EU relationship

17 Feb, 2023

With Zelenskyy coming to Europe last week to make a number of keynote speeches, from London to Paris and then finally the European Parliament in Brussels, now seems a timely moment to assess the state of the EU/Ukraine relationship.

Let’s start by stating what should be clear to all. Zelenskyy is grateful to EU Member States, perhaps with the exception of Hungary, for their unequivocal support during the past year for his embattled country. It has been a journey with a few ups and downs, but as the war has progressed, the EU has eventually followed Ukraine’s requests for further support. Indeed, the most recent example of EU countries acting on Ukraine’s call for help came with Germany approving the export of Leopard 2 tanks, allowing a large number of European countries to send their own German-made tanks. But peek behind the curtain and the relationship between the EU and Ukraine isn’t quite so straightforward.

Zelenskyy has mastered the art of symbolism. It was not by chance that his first trip outside of Ukraine since the war began was to Washington, the US being the country that leads the way in terms of military assistance to Ukraine, and by some distance. After Washington, his next trip was to London, Paris and then finally Brussels. The order in which Zelenskyy has visited Ukraine’s partners is no coincidence, Ukraine counts the US and the UK as its most important backers, followed by the EU and its member states.

The German issue

While Zelenskyy did eventually make it to Paris and then Brussels, it should be noted that he missed out Europe’s biggest economy (although chancellor Scholz did make it over to Paris for the occasion). Germany has long been viewed with suspicion in Ukraine. Zelenskyy has even gone on to block German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s proposed visit to Kiev, due to his history of “cultivating close ties with Moscow”, despite the fact that other European heads of state previously visited the country. Zelenskyy had repeatedly urged Germany to stop buying Russian natural gas (Berlin eventually agreed at least to an EU gas price cap for Russian gas in December 2022). All in all, it is clear that Ukraine has never quite forgiven the chancellor’s Social Democrats for traditionally supporting engagement with Moscow and the development of close economic ties.

Expectations management

It isn’t just Germany that has a tricky balancing act to play. The EU, and in particular the European Commission, needs to be careful not to promise what it can’t deliver any time soon, namely Ukraine joining the EU. Denys Shmyhal, Ukraine’s prime minister, has said that his country has an “ambitious plan to join the European Union within the next two years”. That is wishful thinking. Meanwhile, European Commission President von der Leyen has stated that “Ukraine is advancing on its European path in an impressive manner. Accession is a merits-based process.” Setting expectations of something that can’t be delivered will only further fuel suspicion in Ukraine of its European partners.

Zelenskyy has previously said that Ukraine “deserves” to start EU accession talks before the end of this year. Whether this materializes or not, beginning the negotiations is a radically different thing from concluding them. In June, Ukraine, along with Moldova, became official candidates for EU membership, something that would have been impossible before the invasion on February 24 2022. Yet one only needs to look at Turkey, whose membership negotiations have long been stalled, while negotiations with six countries in the western Balkans are making snail-like progress.

For membership negotiations to start, all EU governments must give their consent. Only then do the formal membership negotiations begin, a long process encompassing “35 chapters” that involves the adoption of established EU law, and the implementation of judicial, administrative, economic and other reforms.

In the case of Ukraine, some Member States, in particular the “Club Med" alliance of nine countries, including France, are concerned that integrating Ukrainian’s agricultural sector into the EU would disrupt the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP). Agricultural expenditure accounts for 30 per cent of the EU budget and agricultural negotiations are consequently among the most protracted in any negotiations. Furthermore, the consequences of Ukraine joining the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy would require a fundamental geostrategic repositioning and a realignment of EU-NATO relations. After Ukraine’s accession, the EU would have another direct border with Russia.

For Ukraine to be fast-tracked into the EU would require an act of political determination not seen since the rush to admit the ten former Warsaw pact countries in 2004. Since then, accession has been above all else a technocratic process. The question now before us is whether Ukraine can expect similar treatment to the Warsaw pact countries.

In it for the long-term

The landscape facing the EU is unrecognisable from that of one year ago. Europe has been confronted with a new geopolitical reality as a result of Russia’s war on Ukraine. The EU has been forced to reassess its own military posture and relations with Ukraine and Russia.

Despite shortcomings, an initial reluctance to give up entirely on Russian fossil fuels, the slow distribution of funds, and a drawn-out German debate on military equipment, the EU and its member states have commendably helped Ukraine withstand Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine, in ways that few, in particular Vladimir Putin, could have anticipated before the invasion began. As the war endures, and the impact on Europe’s economy persists, whether this unity of purpose holds is a question that remains to be answered.


This article was written by Zach Burnside, who advises clients on EU political, policy and regulatory developments. If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this note, please do get in touch.

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