A Conversation With Olha Stefanishyna, Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine
Why do you want to be a member of the EU? What does the EU really mean to Ukraine?
It is indeed a relevant question ahead of the third meeting of the European Political Community which will take place next week in Granada. Ukraine’s accession is now not an issue of desire or aspirations. Today, it seems impossible to consider any political decision in Europe without Ukraine. So it’s really important that Ukraine is at the table of European discussions.
Ukraine is a big country and we understand of course that the economic prosperity and post-war reconstruction and recovery are possible only with an orientation towards future EU membership and the reforms that come with it.
From your perspective, what would the accession of Ukraine change in the European order? And in the European vision of the world and the future? What kind of player Ukraine would like to be?
First and foremost, it is clear today that the European way of life has changed radically on February 24, 2022. And it began before that, in 2014, with the annexation of Crimea. These are the dates when Europe ceased to exist as an entity based on the rules established after the Second World War. The transformation that we are seeing today, this readjustment is not just going to start with Ukraine’s accession to the EU, it’s an ongoing process. Ukraine’s accession to the EU and NATO are basically the part of the natural process to reunite Europe: the return of sustainable development of democratic nations and the return of Ukraine to its place in European architecture. As a member, there is no doubt that Ukraine will significantly strengthen EU security.
The European Commission is now preparing its annual report on enlargement which should be published at the end of October, while the European Council is set to meet in December to decide on the possible opening of negotiations. How would you describe the latest state of play in this regard?
Ukraine has laid a solid foundation for a political decision to start the accession talks.
We have focused on the domestic reforms agenda, which would allow us to strengthen democracy, ensure the sustainable rule of law and improve anti-corruption measures.
We have been able to improve substantially and accelerate the reform agenda monitored by the European Commission. We believe that this will provide a solid background for a consensus among EU leaders. Ukraine continues to transform itself and prepare itself for future accession to the EU while surviving Russia’s aggression.
At European level, the question of enlargement is more and more linked to institutional reforms of the EU. What is your view on this?
It’s an important and relevant issue. The key thing in all these discussions is to ensure that the EU is effective, resilient in the face of the new geopolitical environment. In this context, however, I would like to draw the attention to the establishment of the European Political Community as a new political format for a broader consensus among all European nations, regardless of their membership in the EU. In our understanding, EPC contributes to achieving the goal to make Europe stronger and united around core values. At the same time we have never seen EPC as an alternative to full-fledged membership in the EU.
Then, we are aware that Ukraine’s accession process has unblocked generally the whole discourse on EU enlargement and future decisions has become reality instead of a distant promise.
Of course, the process requires transformations on both sides. We are focusing on policy adjustments at the level related to the internal market which will allow us to be a competitive partner of European nations, but also to contribute to the development of the EU single market.
However, I think it is too early for us (Ukraine) to talk about any political reforms of the EU related to consensus building, decision making and other issues.
We know that currently there are different options on the table, a serious discussion about possible EU internal transformations has already started. And of course, we will be ready to contribute to those reforms to the extent that we can.
In many respects, the EU’s 2004 eastward enlargement is now seen as too hasty. From the Ukrainian point of view, how do you perceive the past two decades of the accession of Eastern and Central European countries to the EU?
As I recall, it was not a quick process. These countries have been on the waiting list for about a decade, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As we can see, they have now become powerful players with sustainable democracies. And it really made it possible to preserve a geopolitical balance of the whole European continent. It was a very important step.
Now it’s very important for us that the next wave of enlargement is also seen as the next stage in the evolution of the European Union, which is demonstrating its high degree of flexibility in the face of global and geopolitical challenges. If the European Union is a pan-European organization that seeks to strengthen and promote the rule of law and a democratic world order, there is basically no other way but to take this decision.
All previous adjustments have been successful, including the reform of the EU treaties and the enlargement process. And now, since the beginning of Russia’s aggression, we have seen significant transformation in the common security and defense policy.
I believe that the next era of enlargement would also be a response to the growing tensions around the world and would be a major step to set in stone the rule-based order and democratic values.
Do you think that 2030 is a credible target for enlargement?
If we talk about all candidate countries, each one is at a different stage of progress. Some decisions could be taken even before this timeframe. For Ukraine, I think it’s absolutely realistic, given our assessment of the work that needs to be done on our side.
How do you think it would be possible to develop a positive narrative around enlargement?
Generally, I think that there is already a positive narrative about the enlargement process. It would not be possible to even think about any modalities of enlargement if it were not supported by the Europeans, by the EU citizens. This is the basis for any further decisions.
Of course, Ukraine is the largest and the strongest country in this enlargement club. And our understanding is that we are joining the European Union to contribute to strengthening the political bond of the EU but also the economic bond of the EU.
Now we are in times of war, we need significant financial support to survive and to make sure that the military support is there. I think that the whole recovery, the cost of a recovery process would be a massive investment boom throughout Europe.
And of course, Ukraine has already proven, even in times of war, that we contribute to global food security, to global energy security. And I think we should only look at that in a positive way.
In which policy areas or strategic priorities, do you see Ukraine’s contribution as potentially really important for the EU construction?
Ukraine is one of the largest markets outside the European Union. Its competitiveness is extremely high. Speaking about the post war reconstruction, all the opportunities related to green transition to physical recovery and reconstruction may be massively discovered in Ukraine.
Ukraine is also an agricultural country and one of the largest exporters of grain and agricultural products around the world. The EU has not been the main market for our exports. By accepting Ukraine, the EU will gain a huge global player and also increase its position in world trade.
Do you think that reconstruction should be part of the accession negotiations? What is the most relevant format to address the massive cost of reconstruction?
There is a coordination platform between all the major players from the G7 group, the EU, the US and, and other partners where we are setting the roadmap and priorities for recovery and related reforms.
And this process is already underway. The discussion is there.
It is a common agreement of all global partners that this process should be aligned with Ukraine’s accession process to the EU and with the reforms related to that. And this, of course, should be the priority for the European Union’s financial assistance aimed at recovery.
Poland and Ukraine are in the midst of an important crisis, when it comes to supplying weapons and the import of Ukrainian grains. How does it affect Ukraine’s war effort ? How do you intend to find a solution?
At the moment, the dialogue has been depoliticized and the issue has been discussed at the level of the relevant Ministers of Agricultural Policy and the colleagues from the Ministries of Economy. I think it’s very important to have this understanding that despite the very fact that we have these tensions, it doesn’t mean that it should be seen as general tensions in Ukrainian-Polish relations.
There have been some emotional statements, but what I can confirm is that so far there is not the slightest sign of a reduction or decrease in support from Poland in terms of their military assistance.
Do you think it is a sign of the difficulties that Ukraine will face in its path to joining the EU?
It is definitely a lesson to be learned. At the same time, we understand that it’s really important that we can find the solutions to bilateral issues before the accession to the EU, which will only make the whole political process smoother afterwards.
We have learned our lessons, we have adapted. The key issue in future accession talks would be to find a balance on the most difficult issues before accession.
What do you think is the biggest danger for Ukraine’s continued fighting?
It has been clear that our partners will stand with Ukraine for as long as it is needed. We have made a significant effort to defend ourselves and deter Russian aggression.
Now we really need to transform our understanding into the fact that we are moving toward victory.
And although the counter-offensive measures are not as vivid as they were a year ago and the occupation of some regions is still a reality, this is a sustainable process of moving forward. The support and the commitment should only increase, so that the counteroffensive that is now taking place will lead to the restoration of the 1991 borders of Ukraine.
Ramona Bloj, A Conversation With Olha Stefanishyna, Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, Oct 2023,
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