The eighth meeting of the Ukraine-EU Association Council on September 5 could have been a routine meeting devoted to assessing the progress in the implementation of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement if not for two things: the ongoing war in Ukraine and its newly acquired EU candidacy status. Both aspects influenced the agenda and the parties’ expectations from the meeting.

Besides the implementation progress discussion of the association, the agenda included the EU’s support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s aggression and a discussion of Ukraine’s EU membership application. In regards to both, Ukraine has always been very ambitious, setting high goals even though its implementation of current agreements was somewhat lagging.

Ukraine received EU candidacy status on June 23, 2022, and during this September meeting, it hoped to get a signal on the EU’s readiness to start the membership negotiation process. Before the meeting, the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine, Olha Stefanishyna, expressed that Ukraine has already implemented 70% of the Association Agreement and would like clarity about the next steps. However, neither Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal nor the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated dates for the start of membership negotiations.

In the joint press release following the eighth Association Council meeting, the parties expressed mutual support and willingness to move forward and voiced their concerns and expectations.

The EU reminded Ukraine to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, implement all the conditions for Ukraine’s EU membership application, ensure the independence of the anti-corruption institutional framework, avoid politicization of the work of all law enforcement agencies, complete the selection of the new Director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, and reform the Constitutional Court of Ukraine (CCU).

The EU emphasized that its support for Ukraine’s reconstruction is linked to reforms implementation to ensure the rule of law and resilient democratic institutions, reduce the influence of oligarchs, and align the Ukrainian legislation with the EU acquis. Ukraine needs to adopt the law on national minorities as recommended by the Venice Commission and effective implementation mechanisms as indicated in the conditions for Ukraine’s EU membership application.

The other conditions mentioned included implementing legislation on a selection procedure for judges, appointing a new head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, ensuring compliance with anti-money laundering legislation, and implementing the Anti-Oligarch and media laws. The European Commission will do its final assessment of meeting these conditions in December 2022.

Ukraine called for restrictive EU visa measures against Russia, establishing the special criminal tribunal for the crime of aggression against Ukraine, and continuing the military assistance as long as required. The Ukrainian delegation suggested an automatic exchange of advance customs information and a longer-term arrangement eliminating roaming charges between the EU and Ukraine. It also offered the EU to use its vast underground gas storage facilities.

The Ukrainian side also presented its vision on the accession framework, including gradual integration of Ukraine into the EU internal market with “four freedoms” – free movement of persons, goods, services, and capital. Ukraine also urged the EU to start screening Ukrainian policies to conform with EU legislation.

In the press release, the Association Council stressed that the future of Ukraine and its citizens lies within the European Union. Still, the progress of Ukraine toward the EU will depend on its merit, considering the EU’s capacity to absorb new members.

EU highlighted the importance of using the full potential of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. Ukraine made progress in anti-corruption, fighting against fraud, anti-money laundering, the rule of law, and public procurement. However, there are spheres where Ukraine is significantly underachieving: intellectual property rights, transportation, financial, and healthcare sectors. Even in spheres where progress is high, there are questions about sustainability and institutional capacity.

Without clear signals from the EU about membership, Ukraine aims for sectoral integration. Five agreements were signed on the day of the meeting, including the Digital Europe, Customs and Fiscalis Programs, for which it receives EUR 500 million in financial support to improve food security and an increase of EUR 122 million for a grant program.

In other sectors, the integration is already on track. Ukraine’s electricity grid is part of the Continental European Network; the country participates in programmes on climate change and satellite navigation systems, as well as Creative Europe, Horizon Europe, EURATOM Research & Training, and EU4Health, to name a few. All these are essential steps, and the Customs Program that Ukraine is joining on October 1 is already called “customs visa-free” in Ukraine and “a historic decision.”

But Ukraine’s EU bid is elusive as ever. Ukraine has set an ambitious goal and pushes with determination, while the EU is cautious and falls back on bureaucratic procedures. The EU fears corruption and excessive oligarch influence that were still a feature of Ukrainian society before the war and what Ukrainian membership might mean for the EU. With its size, Ukraine would become the bloc’s fifth- or sixth-largest country by population and be able to influence EU policies in many sectors. Therefore, Ukraine will need to put in a lot of effort to convince the EU member countries that its acceptance will benefit the entire union, and not just Ukraine.