For Ukraine, Ursula von der Leyen's pointed praise for its reform efforts during her trip to Kyiv last weekend bodes well for its bid to join the European Union, submitted right after Russia's full-scale invasion began in February 2022.
"You have reached many milestones: reforming your justice system, curbing the oligarchs' grip, tackling money laundering — and much more," the European Commission president said on Saturday at a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. "This is the result of hard work."
Later on Saturday, von der Leyen told lawmakers in the Ukrainian parliament that they had already carried out "well over 90%" of the necessary reforms to start accession talks.
"I am confident that you can reach your ambitious goal," von der Leyen said. "That is, for the historic decision to open the process of accession negotiations to be taken already this year."
On Wednesday, the European Commission is set to publish its annual review of membership candidate countries, known as the enlargement report.
Von der Leyen's choice of words strongly suggests Brussels will recommend that EU members back starting official negotiations with Ukraine. However, according to numerous media reports, the EU executive branch will also insist on further changes in Ukraine.
Not quite enough reform
Ukraine was granted official "candidate" status in June 2022 along with neighboring Moldova. That is an important precursor to actually beginning talks. Presently there are eight EU candidate countries, five of which have begun actual accession talks.
While the Commission encouraged member states to grant Ukraine candidate status in its official opinion last June, it also stressed the need for improvements to the Ukrainian judiciary — which the EU executive noted was one of the authorities least trusted by Ukrainians — and more work in the fight against corruption. EU officials also raised issues about money laundering and the ongoing influence of oligarchs.
Wednesday's review should set out in detail how much progress Ukraine has made in the past 18 months while also waging war against Russia. Von der Leyen seems to have made it clear already: Great work but still not quite enough.
Accession talks just the first step
The first thing to bear in mind about accession talks is that they are just that: talks. It is an early step in the long journey to join the EU.
As set out in the EU treaties – article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty, to be specific — any European state is entitled to apply for membership, provided that it respects the bloc's core values and standards. These are known as the Copenhagen criteria and include democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, a functioning market economy and the acceptance of EU laws.
An applicant country must first get the unanimous agreement of the member states, which then request the European Commission to carry out a suitability assessment. On that basis, the member states can then ask the Commission to formally open negotiations to join the EU. For Ukraine, this would be the next step.
But depending on how much reform is needed and the political sentiments of existing member states, negotiations may take a few years, or even decades.
To progress, candidates gradually implement reforms to their public administration, judiciary and economy in order to align with the EU. At the same time, they receive financial and technical support from the EU.
Negotiations cover 35 "chapters" or topics, including big issues like foreign policy and the environment but also more technical ones like the free movement of workers and capital. Each step toward accession must be unanimously approved by all the member states.
Some bids move fairly quickly. Finland only needed three years to complete the procedure in the mid-1990s. However, Turkey has been negotiating since 2005 with no real prospect of advancement. Talks with Turkey are currently on hold.
A lot depends on the pace of reform enacted by candidates themselves but individual EU members can also hold things up for their own political reasons. Bulgaria, for example, long blocked the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia. Bulgaria accused its neighbor of historical denialism and anti-Bulgarian attitudes.
For Ukraine, Hungary, which has previously blocked the release of EU funds for Kyiv, is a clear potential obstacle to progress.
More homework for Ukraine
In any case, as Tinatin Akhvlediani of the Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS), a Brussels-based think tank, told DW, opening accession talks with Ukraine only indicates a long-term goal for it to join, but with no fixed date or timeline, "possibly within 10 years." However, opening the talks would show that the EU is willing to invest in Ukraine's future, she said.
"Accession doesn't happen today," she stressed. "Enlargement will be merit-based there will be no shortcuts. So if Ukraine doesn't progress on the reforms in line with EU values… the country will not become a member," the analyst said.
Even if the war makes reform more difficult, Ukraine will need to keep going. The Commission's opinion last June stressed the need to legislate a selection procedure for Constitutional Court judges, for example. On corruption, EU officials wrote of the need for finalizing newly established anti-corruption authorities and to prove "a credible track record of prosecutions and convictions."
In 2022, non-governmental organization Transparency International ranked Ukraine 116th out of the 180 countries in its corruption perception index, with 180 being viewed as the most corrupt. However, the group also noted Kyiv's efforts to tackle the long-standing issue and the major improvements made over the past decade.
EU also has homework to do
Kyiv has its work cut out for it but its EU ambitions also depend on the whims of the bloc itself. Until the war in Ukraine, certain states were uneasy about admitting new members. Decision-making in the 27-member club is already cumbersome and newcomers tend to be much poorer than existing member states. Ukraine itself is no exception, with a pre-war, per capita gross domestic product of just 30% of the EU average in 2020, according to EU figures.
The outbreak of war on EU borders seems to have changed things though. "Europeans seem to now consider accepting new members into the European Union as part of their response to the new geopolitical reality," according to Engjellushe Morina of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
"Remarkably, leaders of EU countries that in the past showed little enthusiasm for enlargement, such as France, Denmark, and the Netherlands, have completely changed their tone," she told DW.
The bloc now seems more ready to accept another wave of entries somewhere down the line, the first since 2004 when it welcomed 10 countries at once: Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.
"The EU has embarked on a new journey towards enlargement, but it is uncertain how to reach this goal," Morina said. A number of internal reform questions remain unanswered.
Last month, the British Financial Times reported on a leaked EU document calculating that the entry of Ukraine into the bloc would cause a major budgetary shake-up, turning many "net recipient" countries of the EU budget into "net contributors."
Analyst Akhvlediani said CEPS' own research indicated a more modest shift, with only Spain changing to pay in more than it got out. Nonetheless the EU has a lot to think about, she stressed. Ukraine has a huge agricultural sector, she pointed out, with membership having major implications for farming subsidies — a huge part of the EU budget at present.
"So the EU has its homework. Ukraine has its homework. They should go hand in hand with their common goal," she said. "I think by the time they're both ready, that's when the process happens. When Ukraine is ready to accept the EU, and when the EU is ready to expand."