Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


How the EU Can Help Ukraine’s Fight Against Corruption

In the past year, the European Union has earmarked over $70 billion in a show of unprecedented financial and military support. Yet, as the conflict in Eastern Ukraine grinds into a protracted stalemate, trepidation is brewing within the bloc. EU member states are confronting the hard truths of a strained budget, questioning the long-term feasibility of allocating upwards of €50 billion annually. It’s a fiscal endurance test with geopolitical stakes.

The December European Council’s strategic pivot to commence accession talks with Ukraine isn’t just a lifeline—it’s a potential catalyst for political transformation. But amid this high-stakes gambit, Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts remain underwhelming, casting a pall over the efficacy of continued aid. The EU’s conditional €50 billion pledge is more than a mere transaction; it’s leverage for systemic change, offering Ukraine the robust tools needed to recalibrate its reform trajectory.

Specifically, by officially starting the accession process, the EU now possesses the capability to closely monitor and direct Ukraine’s anti-corruption progress through conditionality benchmarks and targeted technical assistance from EU institutions, and the €50 billion aid package will be crucial for the EU to carry out these missions. With sufficient political will in both Brussels and Kyiv, accession talks with Ukraine can catalyze a new phase in the fight against endemic corruption by establishing a framework for transparent monitoring, linking aid to concrete results, and enhancing enforcement capacity. Increased government transparency, oversight, and civil participation in fighting corruption are essential to building momentum for broader reform efforts in Ukraine’s ability to close accession chapters like Chapter 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights) and Chapter 24 (Justice, Freedom, and Security). Sustainable change will require difficult decisions but remains within reach if the EU maximizes the potential of the aid package.

Ukraine’s trajectory has long been shadowed by endemic corruption, persistently spotlighted in Transparency International’s rankings. However, the tide of reform beckons with the EU’s offer of candidate status, contingent on meeting seven critical benchmarks—chief among them, eradicating the graft that has seeped deep into the country’s institutions. Since the pivotal reforms of 2014, including the establishment of the National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), progress has been palpable, yet incremental and, at times, halting. The judiciary remains a bastion of old-guard resistance, with high-profile prosecutions rare and politically fraught.

President Zelensky’s recent crusade against corruption has drawn a spectrum of reactions, laying bare the complexities of conducting transparent anti-corruption operations amidst a climate of geopolitical unrest. The imperative is clear: corruption not only siphons resources but also erodes military efficacy, threatening Ukraine’s defense against aggression. Moreover, as ‘Ukraine Fatigue’ looms over European discourse, the nation’s resolve against corruption becomes not only a litmus test for EU accession talks but also a bulwark against waning international solidarity.

The European Commission’s November 8 report on Ukraine pointed out flaws with ongoing Ukrainian reforms in government and anti-corruption operations but still recommended that the European Council open accession negotiations. The EC’s recommendation is an inexpensive and effective tool to integrate Ukraine’s reforms into the accession process, and the Council’s decision to greenlight the accession negotiations in December provides an opportunity to get more involved in Ukraine’s reform efforts. However, as the EU debates the €50 billion aid package, it should recognize the transformative power of this package based on ample precedent and the potential of the EU institutions.

The EU has extensive experience leveraging targeted aid to spur reforms in aspirant countries through the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA). The current IPA III program (2021-2027) allocates over $15 billion towards helping candidates prepare for accession. Whereas previous IPAs were country-specific, IPA III focuses on key thematic areas like the rule of law, governance, and competitiveness. The IPA has historically aimed to incentivize progress on EU-aligned objectives using carrots and sticks. Though budgeted amounts differ from actual spending, the IPA still is a significant fund that functions as political leverage for countries outside of the bloc, so Hungarian President Viktor Orban’s comments that “Ukraine should not get large funds from the EU as it is not part of the bloc” is a slander that overlooked existing EU efforts.

As the EU looks to maximize its anti-corruption support for Ukraine through the accession process, the precedent of the IPA III is a template for strategically directing portions of the €50 billion Ukraine Facility fund towards key priorities like anti-corruption reform, civil society oversight, and technical training. Mirroring the IPA model would enable the EU to leverage its Ukraine aid in a more targeted manner.

On top of having targeted aid for Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts, the EU aid package can help establish a robust monitoring mission in Ukraine. While Ukraine has cooperated on corruption cases with the EU’s Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) and Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), and an anonymous source from Europol had mentioned that the agency is helping Ukraine identify potential corrupt individuals, the EU offices have not directly participated in anti-corruption operations.

Scholars have noted the lack of anti-corruption expertise and direct participation in the field as one of the reasons why endemic corruption is still prevalent in Ukraine. However, the EU has a range of tools it can draw upon once official accession negotiations begin, from facilitating cross-border law enforcement coordination to harmonizing corruption penalties across states. The EU has a good track record of combating corruption, and experts from countries like Denmark, Finland, and Sweden have worked on designing and implementing transparency laws and anti-corruption programs in their nations that eventually influenced the EU’s anti-corruption practices as a whole.

Based on the proven expertise, a temporary monitoring mission staffed by experts from the mentioned countries and bodies like Europol, Eurojust, and OLAF, as well as seconded judges and civil society representatives, could be embedded within Ukraine’s anti-corruption bureaus to address the aforementioned lack of political will to prosecute higher-level officials and help Ukraine enforce EU regulations and meet the requirements to close chapters leading to an EU membership. By providing technical skills, implementing benchmarks, and increasing transparency, this mission could significantly bolster Ukraine’s capacity to investigate, prosecute, and deter corruption through the accession process. Such direct EU participation is warranted by Ukraine’s challenges and the importance of tangible anti-corruption results for deeper reforms.

In addition to broader targeted benchmarks and more direct involvement in anti-corruption reforms, the EU aid package can also help revive the anti-corruption civil society that has shifted its focus to providing essential survival services since the 2022 invasion. Since the Council opened accession negotiations and the process, the overwhelming public support for joining the EU will invigorate Ukrainian civil society on corruption oversight. By funding these groups, the EU will have ample grassroots support for monitoring, advocacy, and social awareness in Ukraine that could eventually become an integral part of Ukraine’s anti-corruption apparatus even after the EU withdraws its monitoring mission.

The choice is evident as the EU stands at a crossroads of either deepening “Ukraine fatigue” or leveraging a pivotal moment to reinvigorate engagement. By greenlighting the €50 aid package, the EU will arm itself with more potent tools like embedded missions and more targeted aid to curb corruption in Ukraine, which catalyzes further reforms, ultimately enabling Ukraine to meet benchmarks and close accession chapters. EU leaders must consider the transformative power of the aid package and push for its approval to demonstrate European commitment to supporting Ukraine’s reforms and its EU eventual membership.