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Ukraine and Moldova enter formal membership talks with the European Union

President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy
President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy Copyright Dario Pignatelli/
Copyright Dario Pignatelli/
By Mared Gwyn Jonesvideo by Shona Murray
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The move comes two years after both countries applied for EU membership in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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Formal talks on Ukraine and Moldova’s accession to the European Union kick off on Tuesday, in a development hailed historic and set to bolster hopes both countries will one day become EU members despite the war raging in Ukraine.

The opening of talks will take place in two consecutive Intergovernmental Conferences on Tuesday afternoon in Luxembourg, with the two hopeful countries, the European Commission and the rotating presidency of the Council, currently held by Belgium, all represented.

The Ukrainian delegation will be headed by the country’s deputy prime minister for European integration, Olga Stefanishyna, while Prime Minister Dorin Recean will lead the Moldovan delegation.

Speaking upon her arrival, Stefanishyna described the meeting as a "historic moment" for Ukraine and a decision behind which "all the nation stands as one."

"Ukraine, despite the war and the extremely difficult situation, has decided to continue with intensive reforms while they are underneath the bombs and their lives are at risk," the Belgian foreign minister Hadja Lahbib said.

"Let me assure Ukraine that you can always count on the Commission's continuous support on your path to the EU," the European Commissioner for enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, said following the conference with the Ukrainian delegation. "I am confident in the determination of Ukraine to work hard during the negotiations."

'Our shared future starts now'

Tuesday’s meeting is mostly symbolic, but it does mean that the European Commission can make headway in the process of screening both Kyiv and Chisinau’s national laws to determine alignment with the EU’s own in areas including energy, financial services and food safety.

The negotiating frameworks, designed to guide the accession talks and approved by EU member states last week, will also be presented to both countries.

An EU diplomat said that while the initial screening process can typically take one to two years, it could be quicker this time given that the 2014 free trade agreements with both Ukraine and Moldova mean both countries are already aligned with several EU standards and regulations.

The start of negotiations is one of many milestones in a typically years-long process, where countries are required to make judicial, economic and constitutional reforms before they can be considered ready to join the EU. It has taken around a decade on average for previous candidates to join the bloc. 

Seven more countries are currently waiting in the wings to become EU members, five of which - the Western Balkan states of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia - are already in formal negotiations.

“We stand at the threshold of a significant and transformative moment for these two countries (Ukraine and Moldova), and for our Union,” the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said in a video message on Tuesday. She added that Ukraine and Moldova's journeys to EU membership will be “rigorous and demanding,” 

The President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, said: “Our shared future starts now.”

Charles Michel, who presides the European Council, described Tuesday's talks as "a proud moment for both nations and a strategic step for the EU."

"Ukraine’s efforts are even more admirable considering Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine has brought about unprecedented hardship and adversity," Michel added. "The people of Ukraine have shown extraordinary courage and solidarity in defending their sovereignty and their European future."

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Michel has previously called for the EU itself to speed up its preparations for enlargement, suggesting the bloc should be ready to accept new members by 2030.

'Difficult to be enthusiastic'

Ukraine's deputy prime minister Stefanishyna claimed on Tuesday Kyiv will be able to "complete everything by 2030."

"Rest assured that Ukraine is very capable to deliver in a fast way, so if the European Commission is ready we can do it even faster," she added.

But when pressed on whether the EU could accept new members during the next five-year mandate - due to end in late 2029 - Várhelyi said that it's "not a question of the EU giving deadlines."

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"If it would depend only on Ukraine, the deadlines would be much more optimistic," Stefanishyna added.

Speaking to Euronews on Tuesday, John O'Brennan, Professor of European Integration at Maynooth University warned the accession process will likely be long and complex.

"If you look at the recent history of the enlargement process, it's very difficult to be enthusiastic. Why? Because for most of the last 15 years, the entire process has been flatlining and simply hasn't been delivering," O'Brennan said. "The simple truth is that there hasn't been the political will in the EU to really get behind enlargement and to ensure that it becomes a much more serious item on the agenda of the European Council."

He pointed to the recent friction between Poland and Ukraine over tariff-free Ukrainian agricultural imports as a sign that even the most pro-Ukrainian of the bloc's member states will object to Kyiv's integration if it comes at a cost.

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Ukraine's GDP per capita is three times smaller than that of Bulgaria, the EU's smallest economy, meaning its entry could destabilise the bloc's budgetary structure and mean many EU countries would switch from being net beneficiaries to net contributors.

"Potentially it (Ukraine's accession) means the complete transformation of the EU budget. We are not going to be able to keep the EU budget at 1% of GDP. It's going to have to be doubled or tripled, potentially. And many of the more recent member states that have benefited from EU structural funds (...) are going to see their share of the pie reduced significantly," he added.

'No shortcuts'

EU leaders have been quick to point out that enlargement remains a "merit-based" process, despite appetite to fast-track Ukraine and Moldova's bids.

"The accession negotiations are designed to prepare the candidates for the responsibilities of membership, and this is why there are no shortcuts," von der Leyen said.

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Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has injected a new sense of urgency into an EU enlargement policy that has been stagnating for years, with Michel recently asserting that the bloc must either enlarge to integrate its eastern flank, or face a new Iron Curtain.

The negotiating frameworks for both Ukraine and Moldova were swiftly adopted, with the Commission breaking with precedent by recommending the opening of talks last December before either country had fully implemented the necessary reforms.

In response, Hungary has opposed the fast-tracking of Ukraine's membership bid, with the government of Viktor Orbán citing concerns over the levels of corruption in the country and the lack of measures to protect the rights of the Hungarian minority in the border region of Transcarpathia.

EU member states have so far been able to swerve Orbán's opposition campaign, for example by tactically asking him to abstain from the decision on opening talks by leaving the negotiating room.

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There are fears Ukraine's progress could be slowed down over the coming six months, as Hungary's nationalist, conservative government takes over the rotating six-month Presidency of the Council of the EU from Belgium.

Tuesday's Intergovernmental Conferences were convened in a bid to push both countries along the accession path before the Hungarian takeover of the Council.

Exasperation with Orbán's government has been brewing among EU diplomats over recent months as it continues to veto key decisions on military aid to Kyiv. On Monday, the bloc agreed to send €1.4 billion in arms and industrial aid to Ukraine, in a deal sealed by bypassing Hungary.

Stefanishyna, however, said on Tuesday that Ukraine "does not think the Hungarian presidency could be an obstacle."

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The EU executive's enlargement portfolio has also been led by Hungarian commissioner Olivér Várhelyi over the past five-year mandate. The chair of the European Parliament’s EU-Moldova delegation, Siegfried Mureșan, told reporters last week that a Hungarian should no longer steer the EU's enlargement agenda, saying Orbán’s man in Brussels has been a "problem" for the accession push.

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