EU - Ukraine: Unwavering support but delays in implementation

EU - Ukraine: Unwavering support but delays in implementation
Joint press conference on Europe Day in Kyiv, 9 May 2023, credit: EU

The meeting in Kyiv on Europe Day between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky demonstrated again EU’s unwavering support to Ukraine but disclosed also delays in its decision-making process on almost all issues on the agenda.

At their joint press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Zelensky declared that Ukraine has decided to make Europe Day on 9 May a day to celebrate also in his country. He underlined Ukraine’s commitment to European values in memory of the Schuman Declaration from 1950, the founding text of European integration.  The declaration ushered the European peace project after WWII which devastated Europe.

While the Europe then defended its values against Nazi-Germany, Ukraine today defends its democracy and freedom against Russia’s aggression. Several times he mentioned that Ukraine is using force which is proportionate to the Russian threat against its independence. The EU must take measures in support of Ukraine that also are proportionate to the immense threat which Russia poses to all the EU.

It was clear that he hinted that the measures are not always sufficient and timely and should be speeded up, in particular the supply of ammunition which is needed right now ahead of Ukraine’s counter-offensive. Other measures such as the export of grain from Ukraine need also to flow without any restrictions and he expressed disappointment with the protectionism of Ukraine’s neighbors.

Ukraine’s decision to commemorate Europe Day was welcomed by Commission President. “The 9 May is a day to celebrate peace and unity in Europe, to remember the lessons of our history and to commit to leave a better future for the next generations,” she said in her speech.

“Kyiv as the capital of Ukraine is the beating heart of today's European values. Ukraine is on the front line of the defence of everything we Europeans cherish: our liberty, our democracy, our freedom of thought and of speech. Courageously, Ukraine is fighting for the ideals of Europe that we celebrate today.”

“In Russia, Putin and his regime have destroyed these values. And now, they are attempting to destroy them here in Ukraine. Because they are afraid of the success you represent and the example you show. And they are afraid of your path to the European Union.”

“The 9 May also symbolizes something else, and that is solidarity,” von der Leyen added.  “A solidarity born out of the lessons of the great conflicts of the 20th century. That is the spirit of our democracies. Dear President Zelensky, I am here today to assure you that you can count on that very same solidarity for as long as it takes.”

During her visit in Kyiv, President von der Leyen also attended an Accountability Summit. She twitted afterwards that the EU supports the creation of a dedicated tribunal to try Russia's crime of aggression. “As a first step, we must collect, store and analyse evidence. For this, we are setting up an International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression against Ukraine.”

As previously reported, the decision on the centre (ICPA), as a first step towards a war tribunal, was taken in beginning of March. The Centre will be located in the Hague, next to the International Criminal Court, and will preserve evidence and prepare the prosecution for future trials. The process to build up the centre could take some months and it was not clear if it has become operational by now.

Implementation below expectations

President von der Leyen described the discussion as “very good” and reported on the issues on the agenda. “The first priority is to help to secure the ammunition Ukraine needs.” There she referred to the three tracks in a Council decision taken by the Council on 20 March. The fastest track is the immediate release of ammunition from Member States' stocks but she admitted that “more needs to be done, urgently”.

It takes time to implement the two other tracks. Last week the European Commission adopted a proposal for a new regulation to ramp up the EU’s capacity to produce ammunition (track 3). Here the time horizon is 12 months. The second track, a joint procurement process to replenish stockpiles and to deliver more shells to Ukraine, has hardly started yet.

The second topic is financial support and there the EU appears to be on track. Of an €18 billion package for the whole year of 2023, €6 billion has already been disbursed by now, the Commission President said. “This is contributing significantly to closing Ukraine's budgetary gap. But of course, we are already working on financial support beyond 2023.”

The third topic was sanctions. The sanctions are working but there is a need to crack down on circumvention. Last Friday, the Commission adopted its proposal for the 11th sanctions package intended to sharpen existing tools.

There has recently been a growth of highly unusual trade flows between the EU and certain third countries, the Commission President said without mentioning them by name. EU will now take measures to prevent advanced tech products that are going to third countries from ending up in Russia. But she also cautioned that sanctioning the export of those products will be a last resort.

The grain topic is still a challenging problem and need solutions despite the solidarity lanes. “The immediate priority now is that the grain transit goes seamlessly and at the lowest possible cost outside of Ukraine towards the EU. This requires a very close cooperation of the different stakeholders.” A joint coordination platform will be set up to get the solidarity lanes fully functioning again.

Assessment of EU application

Last but not the least Ukraine’s application and path towards EU was discussed. This topic was also high on the agenda at the first ever high-level meeting in February between the College of Commissioners and the Ukrainian government.

It was clear back then that President Zelensky considers EU membership as a logical step in the near future and a strong incentive for Ukraine to defend itself against Russia. President von der Leyen assured in February that Ukraine was making “impressive progress to meet the seven steps of the Commission's opinion” in June 2022.

The Commission will focus on a detailed assessment of Ukraine’s compliance with the EU acquis and preparedness for EU membership in the context of next enlargement package in Autumn 2023. Before that, it promised to inform Ukraine orally in Spring about its opinion on the priority measures that the country has been asked to implement in the accession process.

This time she referred again to the seven steps but did not have much to add on the progress until now. Spring has passed without any oral assessment.

“Ukraine is tirelessly and intensively working on these seven steps, despite the difficulties of carrying out reforms amidst a full-blown war… Work needs to continue. The Commission will report to the Council. First orally in June, but most importantly then in writing in October,” she said, referring to the regular enlargement package with country reports on the progress made in the candidate countries.

Asked about the timing and context in June for the oral assessment, a Commission spokesperson told The Brussels Times that no details were available yet.

The compliance with the seven steps is crucial for the decision on starting enlargement negotiations. They include legislation on the selection and integrity vetting of judges, money laundering, limiting the influence of oligarchs, strengthening the fight against corruption, supporting media pluralism, and finalising the reform of the legal framework for national minorities.

Investigative journalists and public auditors

Some aspects of the steps were discussed with investigative journalists and representatives of civil society at a conference in March in Brussels. Ukraine needs extra lines of defense to ensure that public money is used effectively during the war and to secure the integrity of reconstruction funding after the war.

While these lines are largely already working, Ukraine also needs strong internal and external auditing systems. The state audit office, the Accounting Chamber of Ukraine (ACU), can play a critical role in the accession process but still lacks sufficient audit capacity and independence according to the Commission’s analytical report in February on Ukraine's compliance with the acquis.

The same critique can be found about the supreme audit institutions in other candidate countries that are not in war. “Most of the requirements are not new and are understandable to the ACU,” commented Anna Iashchenko, the head of the press service of ACU.

The reform process in the ACU started in 2019 but the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine have prevented a comprehensive implementation of the requirements in the short term.

While there are no completed results in developing the external audit, she is convinced that the ACU, with the support of the parliament, will fulfil all requirements. The goal is to fully align national legislation in the field of public financial control and external audit with the acquis and international standards.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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