As Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are expected to pick up the pace on reform efforts this summer in their bids for EU membership, the EU is only moving slowly towards its own reform debate.
European affairs ministers on Thursday (22 June) heard Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are making progress on political reforms to proceed to the next steps on their respective EU membership paths – but will need to tighten up some of the reform efforts, as part of a European Commission verbal interim update on enlargement, details of which EURACTIV reported earlier this week.
Ukraine has so far fully implemented two out of seven, Moldova three out of nine and Georgia three out of twelve recommendations spelt out by the European Commission as conditions last year, Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi confirmed on Thursday after presenting his assessment to member states in Stockholm.
Kyiv had made significant progress, he said, with completed reforms related to the composition of two high-level judicial bodies and the media sector, whose legislation was amended to align with EU standards.
However, Ukraine had more work to do on constitutional court reform, measures to fight corruption, and money laundering and curb the influence of oligarchs, and the treatment of minorities.
“Ukraine needs to build a credible track record of prosecutions and convictions and to ensure a steady fight against corruption,” Várhelyi said, in reference to one of the seven tasks.
“They are on track, they are working hard – after all, the country is under attack,” Várhelyi said, adding that Ukraine could satisfy the seven conditions by October, despite the ongoing war, which he described as the “biggest obstacle” in the country’s EU accession hopes.
Sweden’s European affairs minister Jessika Roswall said Ukraine’s reform efforts had been “impressive” in the face of “extraordinary circumstances”.
“Ukraine has taken substantial steps forward,” she added.
For Moldova, “most of the work has to be concentrated around quite the corruption on the fight against organised crime including asset recovery and fight against financial crime and money laundering and public administration reforms”, Várhelyi said.
For Georgia, which does not have yet candidate status and has been gripped by a political crisis in recent years, with concerns in the West over Georgia’s backsliding on commitments to democracy and its Euro-Atlantic orientation, the European Commission’s assessment was less positive than for the other two trio partners.
According to Várhelyi, Tbilisi still needed to make progress on judicial reforms, in particular of the Supreme Court, de-oligarchisation, the fight against corruption and public finances.
“My recommendation to the [Georgian] government is to speed up the work on all the areas so that in October we can have a fully-fledged report – we are ready when the performance is there,” Várhelyi said.
All eyes on October
“Getting candidate status was a challenge, starting accession negotiations is another challenge,” Várhelyi told reporters in Stockholm.
The EU executive’s interim update this week, which takes the form of an oral, not written, report, is meant to be a first indicator of which areas the three countries need to tighten up before the Commission’s regular enlargement review in autumn.
Asked by EURACTIV whether there would be enough time until October for the three to demonstrate “sufficient progress” to proceed to the next step, Várhelyi said the interim update is only “a snapshot”.
“It was very clear from the debate we have had that member states that, of course, we’d like to see all these criteria met, but I am hopeful, judging from the performance of these countries, that this could be achieved by October,” Várhelyi said.
“In October, these [steps] are not going to be the only criteria which we would be looking at,” he said, adding that the Commission’s enlargement report would look at a broader range of factors on Ukraine’s suitability for membership talks and progress for the other two countries.
“We are just in the middle of the work so it’s too early to tell you where they are going to be,” he added.
Asked whether all country’s next steps would require a ‘full implementation’ or ‘good progress’ would be enough for the European Commission to recommend the next steps, Várhelyi said he hopes the oral update would “give a positive incentive” to the three countries.
EU reform – but when?
With EU enlargement on the rebound since Russia invaded Ukraine, member states have been asked to explore how a future enlarged bloc could function though, at least initially, without considering EU treaty reform, according to an internal note seen by EURACTIV earlier this week that was meant to serve ministers as guidance for Thursday’s talks.
“We currently have the problem in the EU that we also not quite have done our homework yet to be ready for any potential accessions,” German Europe Minister Anna Lührmann told reporters.
“It has a lot to do with the fact that we need to be capable to act, even as a union of more than 30 member states,” she added.
Portuguese Secretary of State for European Affairs, Tiago Antunes, echoed her comments, saying that “we want to enlarge, but we want to do it properly and this means reforming and preparing to take new members on board.”
Antunes, however, said the EU “should not start those discussions based on treaty change”.
“We need to discuss content, but not procedures, we need to discuss what areas, and what changes are needed – this is a discussion on content we need to have,” he added.
Asked by EURACTIV what the idea for the way forward after the informal debate was, with the hindsight of an EU elections year potentially risking a slowdown, Roswall said: “It is not the time for scheduling [EU reforms].”
“We didn’t discuss reforms, but what we discussed were the big policy questions which we will need to look into – budgetary questions and if any institutional questions have to be addressed,” Roswall said.
Maroš Šefčovič, Commissioner for Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight told reporters after the meeting that “the debate should not be on enlargement or reforms, but both should be going in parallel.”
“Last time we had a ‘big bang’-approach, this time situation is completely different and new solutions need to be found,” he said.