Half-year candidate: An updated look at EU-Ukraine negotiations

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Olga Stefanishyna is the deputy prime minister of Ukraine for European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

When Ukraine was granted European Union candidate status on June 24, it was an historic moment not only for the country itself but for the European project as a whole.

The decision’s significance reverberated in Kyiv — and in Moscow — as European leaders in Brussels clearly stated, once and for all, that Ukrainians deserve to be part of a free European family and will join the EU.

The following day, Ukraine’s key decision-makers met to discuss how best to maintain momentum in the European integration process. We immediately raised eyebrows by setting ambitious end-of-year goals for all seven of the European Commission’s recommendations despite the complexity of the expected changes — and regardless of all the difficulties, despite defending ourselves from Russian aggression, we were able to move fast.

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Most of the issues at hand had long been on the agenda; but now, considering the ongoing war and our newly granted candidate status, there was no room left for political games, delay or indecision. Not everyone can fight on the battlefield. But we should do everything possible to prepare our country for victory — and this means bringing it closer to the bloc in every aspect.

So, six months on, where are we now?

Over the last few months, we’ve conducted dozens of consultations with stakeholders both inside Ukraine and with experts from the Commission, the Council of Europe (CoE) and the Venice Commission, while our country’s civil society has been carefully monitoring and assessing the reform process. And though dialogue hasn’t always been easy, we’ve been able to find balanced positions on a number of key issues.

Firstly, Ukraine’s parliament has amended the procedure for selecting judges to the Constitutional Court, introducing an ethics council of international and Ukrainian experts, responsible for reviewing candidates, assessing their record of moral conduct and their professional skills. For the first time, the selection will be on a competitive basis, transparent to the public and to Ukraine’s international partners.

Another focus has been the effective reboot of governance bodies — namely, the High Council of Justice (HCJ) and the High Qualification Commission of Judges — undertaken with the participation of experts delegated by international partners. In May, an advisory ethics council completed the integrity check of candidates, and in August, parliament appointed two new members under its quota. A few days later, the Congress of Legal Scholars appointed their member, with a second one now on the way, and the Congress of Judges will now meet to fill their quota in mid-January — making the HCJ operational. 

As for the High Qualification Commission of Judges, the selection commission has completed the review of all applicants from which final candidates are to be selected.

Additionally, a new head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (CAPO) —previously selected through merit-based competition — has now been appointed. And the selection process for a new director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) has been launched in an open and transparent manner, with a commission consisting of Ukrainian and international experts.

Despite being in the middle of a war, these anticorruption institutions have stepped up their pace. Both NABU and CAPO regularly publish reports on their work, and this year, over 150 individuals were brought to justice and more than 40 cases went to the High Anti-Corruption Court, which issued over 20 prison sentences. From these cases, the transfer of seized funds worth 1.2 billion Ukrainian hryvnia to the country’s armed forces has made a significant contribution to the war effort.

Meanwhile, three pieces of anti-money-laundering legislation in line with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) standards have already been ratified or adopted. Namely, the Additional Protocol to the CoE Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism has been implemented, while the other two — one on international cooperation in criminal proceedings and one on sanctions policy — are to be finalized before being put to vote in parliament. Additionally, in December, an interagency group, in close cooperation with the experts from the EU Advisory Mission, finished work on developing a comprehensive strategy for reform in Ukraine’s law enforcement sector.

What’s more, in November last year, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy launched the process of dismantling Ukraine’s oligarchic system by signing the anti-oligarch law. Together with our international partners, we share the goal of breaking this system, which has been halting our country’s development and integration into the European community for years.

Several steps have been taken in this regard, and we continue to hold consultations with both the Venice Commission and the CoE to ensure the law’s implementation in a legally sound manner. The National Security and Defense Council has also approved regulations for the formation and management of a register of oligarchs; the National Agency on Corruption Prevention has developed a number of relevant draft laws; and the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting has approved regulations for screening media investors.

Similarly, EU recommendations have given a much-needed push to media reform in Ukraine. In December, the parliament adopted a comprehensive media law that aligns the country’s legislation with the EU audio-visual media services directive, empowers Ukraine’s independent media regulator, and is in line with feedback received from both CoE and Commission experts.

Finally, the draft law on national minorities has been discussed with the representatives of these communities and amended according to the recommendations of CoE experts. This law establishes the legal framework for state policy in terms of protections and ensuring the rights of national minorities. The law’s implementation will also be aided by the state program “Unity in Diversity,” which will be developed in consultation with representations of these communities.

As demonstrated, over recent months, significant steps have been taken to reach all seven of the reform goals set out by the Commission. In addition, both the government and parliament have intensified their work on legal approximation under the Association Agreement, which provides a solid basis to start the process of Ukraine’s integration into the EU internal market.

Thus, we should now start moving forward, but this requires the same level of commitment from both sides. And in this regard, we welcome the Commission’s intention — backed by EU member countries — to make an update regarding Ukraine’s progress as early as this spring, as such a report will be crucial to keep the momentum going in the process of European integration.

Ukraine is a vibrant democracy with all its ups and downs, and even though this can at times make some consensus harder to reach, we should cherish and value such democratic debate. Ultimately, this is what our soldiers are fighting to defend.

Our servicemen and civilians are being killed every day, and our cities are being sunk into darkness and cold. We can’t afford to waste a single minute.