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Copenhagen criteria: how to determine Ukraine’s approach to EU membership

For many of us, joining the European Union is a hot topic that poses some important questions. When will we enter the EU, and how can we understand that we are ready to join?

To answer those questions, the Copenhagen criteria have been developed. Any country that wants to join the EU must comply with them.

This compliance is assessed by the European Commission and based on its assessment a decision is made regarding the applicant country’s accession to the EU.

What are the Copenhagen criteria?

The Copenhagen criteria are the requirements that must be met to join the EU. They are simple and complex at the same time.

Why simple? Because the Copenhagen criteria are minor in scope. The applicant country must have the following:

A necessary clarification is also that the country must be European (no matter how obvious it may seem, but this was one of the reasons Morocco’s application for joining the EU was rejected), and the European Union must be able to integrate the new member.

Why difficult? Because the criteria have the same level of detail as stated in the previous paragraph: they contain absolutely no measurable indicators that would allow us to assess the country’s progress and compliance with the criteria. For example, what are the “stable institutions”? How to determine when the economy becomes “competitive on the EU market”? How to understand that the EU is “capable of integrating a new member”? The Copenhagen criteria need to answer these and many other questions.

But the Copenhagen criteria have undergone a particular evolution.

For example, the European Commission developed the Updated Enlargement Methodology better to assess a country’s compliance with these criteria and allow the applicant country to be as prepared as possible. The accession process is divided into 35 sections and six clusters, and for each section, there are conditions for opening and closing negotiations, which determine the status of compliance with the criteria.

In fact, after the submission of the application and during the accession negotiations, the European Commission regularly assesses the progress of the candidate countries in each section and provides targeted recommendations to achieve the Copenhagen criteria.

In Ukraine, the first assessment within the framework of the Expansion Package is expected in the fall.

In addition, in our case, seven recommendations, given to us simultaneously with the status of a candidate for EU membership, are aimed at helping Ukraine fulfill the Copenhagen criteria.

It is also essential that the Copenhagen criteria and the recommendations given to candidate states on the way to membership are very closely intertwined.

For example, in describing the economic problems of Ukraine, the European Commission very clearly indicated that the improvement of macroeconomic stability and the preservation of the market economy should be ensured, in particular, by reducing corruption, reducing the participation of the state in the functioning of the economy, reducing the significant influence of oligarchs, strengthening property rights and increasing flexibility of labor market.

Thus, of the seven recommendations provided by the European Commission, six are indirectly related to improving the functioning of our economy.

How to assess compliance with the admission criteria?

But how can a progress be evaluated outside the European Commission’s official evaluations? This is possible mainly by determining the state’s position in internationally recognized ratings.

These include, in particular, the Corruption Perceptions Index, the Rule of Law Index, the Freedom Index, and the Index of Economic Freedom. It is also apparent that you can measure macroeconomic indicators indicating the economy’s health: GDP growth rate, inflation rate, unemployment rate, etc.

We are often told that Ukraine does not meet many criteria. But Ukraine is only at the beginning of its journey.

We have only received candidate status half a year ago, and there is still much to be done.

A similar situation existed in many countries that once joined the EU.

For example, Croatia is an example of the most recent enlargement of the EU in 2013, as well as Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the bloc in 2007.

In the future, we will consider these countries specifically as examples of recent enlargements and also because the approximation to the political and economic criteria for entry was roughly comparable to the level currently demonstrated by Ukraine, which makes such a comparison possible.

If we look at their indicators, they started from approximately the same positions as Ukraine.

For example, in the rating of perception of corruption in 2021, Ukraine scored 32 points out of 100, corresponding to 122nd place out of 180. Is there room for improvement? Indeed, this needs to be improved for Europe.

But if we look at the positions occupied by Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria during the years of application, we will see that their starting positions were not much better. Thus, at the time of receiving the application in 2004, Croatia had 35 points out of 100 (3.5 out of 10, according to the old methodology), and Bulgaria and Romania in 2000 – the year of the start of accession negotiations – had 35 (3.5) and 29 (2.9) points. That is, the situation in Romania was even worse than in Ukraine. However, in 2021, Bulgaria had 42 points, Romania – 45 points, and Croatia – 47 out of 100.

Between application and membership, Croatia improved its position in the ranking by 37%, Bulgaria by 17%, and Romania by 28%.

This suggests that these countries have come a long way since receiving candidate status.

Similarly, in the Index of Economic Freedoms, Ukraine had 54.1 points in 2022 . At the same time, Croatia had 53.1 points in the year of its application, 61.3 in the year of admission, and 67.6 in 2022. In the case of Bulgaria, in 2000, when the negotiations started, Bulgaria had 47.3 points, at the time of accession in 2007 – 62.7 points, and in 2022 – 71 points. Romania, which received candidacy and became a member at the same time as Bulgaria, started with a score of 52.1, entered with 61.2, and ended 2022 with a score of 67.1.

During the accession negotiations, Croatia improved its position in the Index by 15%, Bulgaria by 33%, and Romania by 17%.

The Corruption Perceptions Index demonstrates that European integration is the correct direction for development. It is possible to start with not very high indicators, but in the process of negotiations, they can be significantly improved and continue to improve after joining the European Union.

As you can see, from the moment of receiving the candidate status to the moment of transformation into a full member, nine years have passed in the case of Croatia and seven years in the case of Romania and Bulgaria. Ukraine is a unique and incredible country with high potential and capacity for work. But you shouldn’t expect a full integration to happen very fast. On average, this process takes a little more than eight years.

The average transition time from association agreement to candidate status is over seven years. This path took approximately the same time in Ukraine.

So it depends only on us how quickly we will move towards fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria. And at the same time, we need to realize that joining the European Union is not a goal but a natural consequence of the processes of qualitative transformation of the country.

Let’s summarize it briefly.

First, the Copenhagen criteria contain quite general requirements that are difficult to measure, so there is room for political decisions even if fulfilling the conditions could be better. At the same time, the “political decisions” that were made regarding the current EU members at the time of their accession are not very favorably evaluated in the EU.

Therefore, it is in the interests of Ukraine to meet the criteria as close as possible and not to be exposed to criticism regarding the “politics” of the decision on accession.

Secondly, all the candidate countries in the process and after gaining membership significantly improve their indicators according to all possible metrics. This shows that European integration reforms and “conditionality” (provision of EU support subject to the fulfillment of certain conditions) are bearing fruit, and the country is becoming stronger both politically and economically.

Therefore, the process of European integration is essential for Ukraine. And we are interested in doing this “homework” ourselves.

Thirdly, accession is not an end in itself; the main thing is to carry out reforms and achieve the appropriate level of welfare in the country. Some EU member states have stopped their development after gaining membership, and in some places, there is even a certain backsliding.

Ukraine should avoid such a scenario and continue to grow even after joining the European Union.


Dmytro Lyvch, chairman of the board of EasyBusiness and co-founder of the Center for Economic Recovery

Yuliia Shaipova, head of European integration projects at the Center for Economic Recovery

Oleksandr Kostryba, head of EasyBusiness European integration projects

The article was prepared as part of a study conducted by the NGO “Easy Business” with the support of WNISEF

“European Pravda”