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Ukraine’s path to accession, the intricacies of internal EU reforms, and European identity: an interview with Michael Roberts 

Today, we are witnessing the exceptional situation of European leaders opening the path for Ukraine and other aspiring states like Georgia or Moldova to join the European Union in the long run. Yet more work remains to be done than one might think. And it is not only neighbours who are eager to join the European family, but the EU itself that needs to implement reforms and be ready to integrate a wave of new member states. To shed light on the role of civil society in European integration and to answer the questions of how Brussels itself is getting ready (and if it is actually ready) to welcome new members, and what European identity is like today, I interviewed Michael Roberts. 

Michael Roberts is a consultant and coach specialising in EU affairs and Euro-Atlantic integration. He was formerly British ambassador to Slovakia and prior to that worked as a diplomat in Brussels, Ankara and Athens, as well as at the heart of government in London. He was closely involved in previous rounds of EU enlargement. 

Hi, Michael, it’s a huge pleasure and honour for me to host you for this interview. Considering your broad experience of dealing with the EU, how can you describe the concept of European integration? 

Well, first of all, there is a definitional point to consider. It all depends on where you are standing. If you are in Ukraine today, EU integration is about joining the European Union. The same applies to Moldova, Georgia, and the Western Balkan countries. In other words, if you are outside the EU, EU integration usually refers to getting closer to Brussels. That is one way of looking at the concept of EU integration. Another is from the perspective of a country already part of the EU, like France or Germany. In their case, European integration refers to ‘deepening’, or strengthening the Union (e.g., bringing all member states within the single currency or Schengen area). It is important to remember that EU integration looks, feels, and sounds different depending on which country you happen to be in. But if we describe it from the Ukrainian perspective, European integration means joining the European Union. 

Whatever you mean by joining.  Remember that you join the EU at a particular point, but do not necessarily join all the aspects of the EU straight away. There can be transition periods. Usually, transition periods last about seven years, but who knows what will apply in future. To illustrate, there might be barriers for a certain number of years for Ukrainians to enjoy freedom of movement within the EU. Or there might be barriers for Ukraine’s ability to export its agricultural products across the EU.

Elaborating on the fact that quite a few countries want to join the EU today, how can you describe the role of civil society in the EU integration of the aspiring states? 

When looking at the development of the EU itself, governments usually set the agenda, and civil society just follows, which suggests that among EU member states civil society plays a lesser role in shaping the union’s future. Civil society might focus on specific issues, such as farming or environmental issues, but less on the general direction of the EU. 

I think the picture is different, when it comes to countries outside the EU. I get the impression that it is civil society that is pushing their governments to integrate with the EU and NATO in countries such as Georgia or some Western Balkan countries. People there hold on to the hope that EU membership might lead to things turning out for the better, despite the policies of their governments. Civil society paints a picture (on the rule of law, for example) that enables Brussels to appreciate that “yes, we need to work harder on this or that aspect of integration”. 

What about Ukraine then?

Everything is complicated because of the fact that Ukraine is currently at war. I get the impression that the government is in the driving seat right now. Civil society is bound to work under pretty tough conditions and there are obviously other priorities. The war means that those who, for example, are trying to measure transparency, corruption levels or media freedom cannot always do their work. This is not an ideal way to go through the EU integration process, but we have to make it work as best as we can.

Speaking more about Ukraine, as someone who witnessed Ukraine’s aspirations and steps toward the EU from the outside, how can you describe the dynamics of EU integration through the last decade?

The 2014 Revolution of Dignity was a turning point. The Revolution meant that Ukraine changed its mind and signed those agreements with the EU. And I don’t think a so-called Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement has ever meant so much, as it has in the case of Ukraine. In the case of this country, we really felt its significance.  That was probably both because Ukraine is such a huge country – larger than most of the EU’s current members – and because there was a genuine intention to make something of it, to see whether it could result in Ukraine becoming a member. And remember that the revolution forced Europe to reset its compass. In Britain, where I come from, as in other EU member states, there has been a lot of discussion of Ukraine being a ‘buffer state’ between Russia and Western Europe. Some people thought of Ukraine as a country that lived in a kind of permanent limbo. The events of 2014 changed that. Everyone in Western Europe had to change their assessment of Ukraine’s geostrategic significance. Even so, the EU didn’t think much about the issue of new countries joining. And that was not just about Ukraine. That was due to what we call ‘enlargement fatigue’ which had set in since 2004 . 

And what has changed in Ukraine through the last decade? 

For those eight years before 2022, while nothing much happened on EU enlargement, civil society did appear to grow from relatively thin roots. We learned that there was a healthy diversity of views in the Ukrainian civil society, we witnessed debates around corruption and the rule of law. Critics of the new government from civil society helped to paint for us a bigger picture of what Ukraine is like and some of the challenges that EU integration might bring. That enabled us to look at Ukraine through the lens of a country, which will likely become part of the EU. 

Sometimes, from the Ukrainian perspective, there is a claim that EU integration should be as quick as possible, considering the circumstances in which Ukraine finds itself. However, there is also a gap in understanding what is “fast” for the EU. Can you explain what “as soon as possible” will mean for Brussels if the decision to integrate Ukraine entirely is made?

“As soon as possible” – so much is loaded into those few words. Again, it depends on where you stand. The candidate country needs to be ready to join. And it is not only about willingness and initiation of the process. Being prepared is about being ready to face the dramatic economic change that will occur the day you join.

There must be a high degree of convergence before it happens. And it takes time. That’s one component of “as soon as possible”. 

It’s relatively easy for Ukrainians to imagine what that process might look and feel like for them. It is much harder to imagine the concept of absorption capacity that the EU talks so much about. This is about the EU itself becoming ready to receive new members. Particularly, a new member as large as Ukraine. And the EU is not ready for that just now. The EU is discussing the ways to reform itself before anyone joins. In other words, internal reform is just as much (if not more of) a problem for the EU than the process of newcomers  becoming members. Reform has to be agreed upon by everyone, and as yet there is no consensus on what that reform should look like. 

Do you think there can be something like a deadline for new members’ integration? 

In practice, the EU thrives on deadlines whether they are real or artificial. Even if the deadline is missed by a few weeks or months, deadlines nevertheless help. People say that the EU tends to lurch forward from one crisis to another; that is how it integrates. One possibility is that if Ursula von der Leyen becomes the President of the European Commission for a second term, she might set a deadline of the end of that term (i.e. 2029) to conclude accession negotiations with Ukraine and others.  That would provide a useful impulsion to the negotiations, even if the actual date of accession takes longer. 

I never thought I would say this, but let’s hope there will be a deadline. Anyway, my last question for today will be about what European identity is.

Again, it depends on where you stand. For the countries that joined in 2004, European identity was a choice: after 40 plus years of communism should they look East or West? Their choice was to join Western democratic structures. For many in the Western Balkans today, being part of Europe is about enjoying the same economic advantages that their neighbours enjoy.  What people sometimes forget, however, is that enjoying a European identity brings with it new responsibilities, not least to uphold shared democratic values. 

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