Yannis Karamitsios co-authors a piece here with Elina Morhunova on the current relationship between the European Union and Ukraine. Ukrainian-born and European minded, Elina Morhunova is a European & International Business Lawyer and Business Developer who speaks about financial globalisation and world’s political affairs.

The Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU is in force since September 2017. It has established a political and economic association between the two parties covering many different areas, including freedom of movement, workers’ rights, judicial co-operation, the modernisation of energy infrastructure, access to the European Investment Bank and a “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area”.

The European Commission published in November 2018 its first report on the implementation of that Agreement. It noted that Ukraine has made progress in a number of important areas over the past year, but several outstanding reforms still need to be reinforced so that Ukrainian citizens can fully reap its benefits. The report highlights in particular the slow pace of reforms in the areas of the judiciary and anti-corruption measures[1].

What next? Should Ukraine be set on track to join the EU?

A country can join the EU only if it fulfils the so-called “Copenhagen criteria” (after the European Council in Copenhagen in 1993 which defined them), namely:

  1. political criteria: stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities;
  2. economic criteria: a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and market forces;
  3. administrative and institutional capacity to effectively implement the EU legislation and ability to take on the obligations of membership[2].

We are not in position to make a full assessment of each of those criteria concerning of Ukraine to the EU. This is a huge task requiring the work of hundreds of technical and political experts. We would however like to present our basic strategic views about a country where east and west meet in the most dramatic way. Our thoughts are split between “yes” and “no”. We would ultimately vote for the “yes” option. But in order to be fair to the readers, and also help them to reach their own conclusion, we would like to present our four major arguments against and in favour for each direction

Four reasons to say “no”

 The Russian occupation: not a problem to import into the EU

A major argument against the accession of Ukraine to the EU is that we do not want to import the problems of that country with Russia. Since 2014, Russia has officially annexed Crimea and is unofficially occupying through paramilitary troops territories in east Ukraine.  If Ukraine becomes an EU member state, all those issues might generate a new, huge and permanent political headache in Brussels, as they will also become domestic European problems. Moreover, they would likely put Europe in a direct confrontation with Russia on issues perceived by both sides as existential challenges.

 The values gap

The EU unity is currently tested by the rise of illiberal and authoritarian governments in member states like Hungary and Poland. The independence of judiciary is compromised and the rule of law and democratic standards fall short of the European ones. There are still big problems with corruption in member states like Romania and Bulgaria. Societal attitudes toward the rights of immigrants, minorities and homosexuals are less tolerant than the ones in west and north Europe. A values gap between east and west Europe seems to exist. If Ukraine accedes the EU, that gap is likely to be widened further with the addition of tens of millions new citizens who would not be ready to embrace the ideas of rule of law, democracy and human rights in the way they are understood in the west.

 Inherent and structural corruption

In 2017, according to a poll conducted by Ernst & Young, experts considered Ukraine to be the ninth most corrupt nation in the world.[3] Today, Ukraine is still dominated by a limited circle of oligarchs working in collaboration with the ruling establishment. The economy is riddled by inefficiency and corruption. State enterprises continue to drain the national budget to the enrichment of its controlling interests. Monopolistic practices persist in many sectors and competition is suppressed. Regulatory bodies make pricing decisions based on the needs of dominant business interests. Land reform is blocked to provide advantages to agricultural magnates. Even the military budget is raided through corrupt procurement practices. All of those elements have been met with little resistance and opposition by the Ukrainian society.

 Too big and too poor to be integrated

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union there were great expectations that the economic stagnation imposed on Ukraine by the Communist system would be a thing of the past. However, the reality has not met the expectations. Instead of being a prosperous, middle-income country by now, Ukraine remains one of the poorest in Europe. Ukrainians are at the same level with Moroccans or Jordanians in terms of GDP per capita.[4] Without leadership committed to radical reforms to fight corruption and achieve a true free market economy for the development of the Ukrainian society, the country’s European perspectives will remain at risk.

Four reasons to say “yes”

Compensating for Brexit’s loss of population, territory and economy

Because of Brexit, the EU is going to see a significant reduction of population (66 million people), GDP (2,7 trillion euros) and territory (242,000 km2). In an era of global competition in a globalised context, those figures matter. Only big players are going to be relevant. For sure, Ukraine does not have the size of the UK. However by adding Ukraine in its ranks, the EU would obtain an additional population of 40 million people, an economy of 363 billion euros and a territory of 600,000 km2. This should also entail an additional economic, geopolitical, intellectual and overall strategic weight.

Large, educated and skilled population

Ukraine has one of the highest higher education percentages in Europe per capita. It is ranked 4th in the world in terms of percentage of citizens with higher education.[5] Ukraine has a vibrant, colourful history and has played its own role in the development of western society. Today, the country is on the cutting edge of information technology and infrastructure. Thanks to this, there is a probability that more Ukrainians and locations of Ukraine will be included in this type of list in the future.

 Food security in a food-insecure century

Ukraine is one of the top producers in the world of agricultural crops which are very important for food security, such as wheat, buckwheat or barley.[6] As the rest of the world is going to become more populated, rich and hungry, it is also going to use a bigger part of its food production for its own consumption than for exports to the EU. Agricultural resources are also projected to be pressured by global warming and depletion of water sources. Global food crises constitute a likely scenario in the future. Europe should therefore become more sufficient in terms of food production, and, in this respect, inclusion of Ukrainian agriculture could prove a great asset.

The Accession negotiations are the best means to close the current gaps

According to a theory, the best way to correct the wrongs of a particular side is to include it in the ranks of the “right” side – regardless how flawed the “wrong” side could be. This theory has proven sometimes naive. The beginning of the accession negotiations with Turkey in 2005 have brought that country nowhere near the EU as of 2019. In fact, Turkey has never been further away from the European world. Despite that precedent, we remain confident that Ukraine is not Turkey. Substantial parts of its people, administration and political leadership do indeed have the potential to comply with the EU standards. They are really thirsty for them. A formalised pre- and post-accession framework could yield spectacular results in all aspects which might seem hopeless today: rule of law, tackling of corruption or democratic institutions. This is why we believe that the strongest argument in favour of an accession procedure, it the procedure itself. It would establish formal and transparent commitments, benchmarks, targets and control points. This is what the Ukrainian society needs, in order to make the most substantial steps forward.


The high level of public support in Ukraine for the EU reflects how much that country’s situation has changed since 2014. The Euromaidan revolution, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the Donbas war, and western sanctions on Russia have moved Ukraine away from its previous multi-vector foreign policy of balancing between the West and Russia.

In order to reach the final stage in the “Ready – Set – Go” concept, the hardest work remains to be done by Ukraine. Its rulers, and especially the newly elected President Zelinsky, must stand with civil society, which is demanding true reform to put the country on a new course toward normalisation and prosperity. No more excuses.

Yannis Karamitsios
Yannis Karamitsios is a lawyer originally from Thessaloniki, Greece. Since 2006 he lives in Brussels and works as legal officer in the European Commission. He is a convinced federalist and he dedicates big part of his public action to the promotion of European and international federalism.

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