Moldova and Ukraine Will Need to Navigate a Complex Political Landscape in EU Accession Negotiations

July 03, 2024
The opening of formal EU negotiations was a major milestone for the two countries, but the next steps to swiftly advance to full-fledged membership will require a lot of effort and political maneuvering.

On June 25, Moldova and Ukraine held their first intergovernmental conferences with the EU, effectively starting formal membership negotiations, almost exactly two years after the European Council granted candidate status to both. This clears the way for the most painstaking part of the accession process: bringing the candidate countries’ legislation in line with EU laws and standards by implementing the necessary judicial, administrative, economic, and other reforms. 

EU leaders have emphasized that this will be a “long process” of “rigorous and demanding” negotiations, and how long exactly will depend on several factors. While the implementation of the EU’s acquis under the 35 negotiating chapters corresponding to various policy areas will require considerable time and effort from Moldova and Ukraine, political dynamics within the EU will also play a crucial role in maintaining the momentum for this process or slowing it down. 

The timing of this latest step in Moldova and Ukraine’s accession process was not short of political considerations. Although both have been on track to deliver on the European Commission’s recommendations from the latest enlargement package, their prospect for the smooth opening for accession negotiations—particularly in Ukraine’s case—was hampered by Hungary. Budapest has pressed Kyiv over the status of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine, repeatedly threatening to block EU decisions on negotiations, alongside its other policies related to wartime support for Ukraine. The leaders of Ukraine and the EU worked hard to start the membership negotiations with Moldova and Ukraine before Hungary took over the six-month Presidency of the Council of the EU on July 1.

Having overcome Hungary’s opposition to opening the accession talks, Moldova and Ukraine are not safe from future disruptions from member states. The way the accession process is designed provides plenty of room for political vetoes at each stage: for the opening and closing of each negotiating chapter, and for the conclusion of the negotiations. As the experience of North Macedonia with vetoes from Bulgaria, France, and Greece demonstrates, candidates can easily fall victim to politicization of the enlargement process in member states’ domestic agendas. Therefore, besides implementing the acquis and delivering on other requirements outlined in their negotiating frameworks, Moldova and Ukraine will need to navigate the EU’s complex political landscape.

Having overcome Hungary’s opposition to opening the accession talks, Moldova and Ukraine are not safe from future disruptions from member states.

This is crucial given the debate on the EU’s capacity to integrate new members. This concerns budgetary issues, decision-making arrangements, and the general structure of EU governance—all of which will be affected by the addition of new members, especially such a big country as Ukraine. The EU budget must be reformed before more countries can be taken in, as it will hardly be possible to grant them the same level of funding for agriculture and regional policy that members receive now. 

However, as demonstrated by the farmers’ protests across the EU, including the blockade by Polish truckers of the border with Ukraine, such reforms could be difficult to push through amid strong domestic opposition in some member states. The negotiating teams of Moldova and Ukraine will need to prepare very well, including by learning from previous enlargement rounds, to secure transitional measures, derogations, or specific arrangements that might be needed to reach common ground in problematic negotiation areas.

Even though the negotiations will take years, Moldova and Ukraine should be able to reap the benefits of closer integration with the EU before they are completed. As indicated in their negotiating frameworks, progress on the many needed reforms will be rewarded with “accelerated integration and ‘phasing in’ to individual EU policies, the EU market and EU programs.” This would be in line with existing proposals for gradual EU accession, and would help keep public support for the EU membership path in the candidate countries. 

Moldova and Ukraine hope to join the EU by 2030, having moved faster from application to the opening of membership negotiations than have other countries in the waiting line—Georgia, Türkiye, and the Western Balkans states. But rather than speculating about the timeline for completing their accession talks, it is crucial for them to focus on fulfilling the dozens of specific requirements and implementing reforms while the political momentum in the EU is still there. As the negotiations over the substance of the chapters will most likely start in 2025, after the new European Commission’s is formed and Poland takes over the Presidency of the Council of the EU, both capitals have some time now to prepare. 

Khrystyna Parandii is an international relations specialist based in the Netherlands and ReThink.CEE Fellow 2022 of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She is the author of Eastern Europe Joins the Western Balkans: A New Start for the EU’s Enlargement Policy?