EU VP: Ukraine Accession Negotiations Must Be Opened 'Without Delay'

Philippe Jacqué and Virginie Malingre /
EU VP: Ukraine Accession Negotiations Must Be Opened 'Without Delay' Vera Jourova in Brussels, on April 26, 2023. (Photo: AFP)

In an interview, Vera Jourova also said that the European Union is partly responsible for the rise of the far right on the continent.

Vera Jourova, the European Commission vice president responsible for values and transparency, has just returned from Kyiv. In an interview with Le Monde, the former Czech minister (Liberal Democrat) judges that, by the time the European Council meets in Brussels on December 14 and 15, Ukraine will have fulfilled all the conditions required by the EU-27 to open accession negotiations.

For the opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine, the Commission is proposing a two-stage approach: a political agreement by the 27 member states on December 14 and 15, conditional on a new assessment of the situation in March 2024. Is it necessary to wait?

No. Let's not wait until March. When the Commission made this proposal in November, it was thought that Kyiv would need a few more months to meet the criteria set by the EU-27. I've just returned from Kyiv. From what I've seen, there are still things to be done in terms of fighting corruption and protecting minorities, but Ukraine is determined and will be ready by mid-December. In two weeks time, the Commission will tell European leaders that Ukraine meets all the conditions for opening accession negotiations without delay.

For the time being, Viktor Orban is opposed. Will he go through with it?

So far, Mr. Orban has made a lot of noise, but he hasn't prevented the EU-27 from sanctioning Russia, nor Ukraine from drawing closer to the European Union [EU]. We need to ask ourselves why he is considering a veto.

Orban calls for a "strategic discussion" on Ukraine. Is he right?

In the long term, it's clear that Ukraine must win the war and join the EU. But this strategic debate on the future of Ukraine and the relationship between the EU and Russia is necessary, and the heads of state and government should have it. Because it's not easy for them to convince their citizens that Kyiv needs to be helped, financially and militarily. But we mustn't forget that Russia is imperialist and that what happens to Ukraine could happen to EU member states.

Accession negotiations could take years. Isn't there a risk of Ukraine losing hope?

We need to gradually open the EU's doors to Ukraine. We can do very concrete things before Ukraine becomes a member, in terms of technology, energy, infrastructure. Furthermore, the EU should talk to Kyiv on an equal footing during the accession negotiations, by listening to it.

When my country, the Czech Republic, was negotiating to join the EU, I sometimes felt like a student, ready to accept anything to join the European club. We were enthusiastic, but we didn't put the issues that needed to be on the table. Twenty years on, that's still causing us problems. It's dangerous for the future.

Extreme parties are on the rise in Europe, as we saw in the recent elections in Slovakia and the Netherlands. Do you fear they will continue to rise?

The rise of the far right is also the result of something we're neglecting. We Liberal Democrats have to ask ourselves whether we are listening to the people, responding to their fears and uncertainties. In my country, some people are worried that they won't be able to keep warm this winter, or that they won't have enough money to eat. It's not populism to listen to people and react. You have to face reality, take the pulse of society. We don't do that enough.

Do you think the EU bears some responsibility for being so far removed from its citizens?

Yes, but the institutions deal with subjects that are often global and difficult to sell to citizens, in the true sense of the word, such as trade relations between the EU and China. These are subjects far removed from their concerns, even if they affect their daily lives. On the other hand, the EU deals with issues that concern Europe as a whole. Sometimes they are "relevant" to the French, and Romanians don't care. Sometimes, the opposite is true.

Nevertheless, the EU needs to do a better job of explaining what it does and what it intends to do. It is our duty to translate this into language that citizens can understand, to communicate from their point of view. In this, we fail.

Does foreign interference also play into the hands of the extremes?

During the Slovak election campaign, we saw the influence of Russian propaganda, which bombarded the Slovak information space with unprecedented intensity.

The EU has passed the Digital Services Act (DSA) to combat misinformation...

Election campaigns in the member states – we'll see how the June 2024 European elections go – are increasingly confrontational and aggressive, with growing use of unfair methods, manipulation and artificial intelligence [AI]. More than the rise of the far right, I'm afraid that voters will lose the autonomy of their vote, that elections will no longer be free and fair.

This is the purpose of the DSA, which requires disinformation to be removed from social media if it aims to destabilize society or incites violence. It's also the purpose of the draft regulation on artificial intelligence [AI Act, currently under negotiation]. Those technologies used in election campaigns as high-risk. They will have to be listed and verified because here, we are playing with technological fire.

Since October 7 and the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel, anti-Semitic messages and hate messages have exploded on social media. Commissioner Thierry Breton has called on the platforms to put a stop to this. Has this been successful?

Thierry Breton makes a lot of noise, I do things quietly. I've spoken to several platform bosses – TikTok, Facebook, YouTube or X – recently. It's our job to ask them questions, until sanctions can be taken after February, when the DSA will be fully implemented. We know that 90% of potential terrorists are radicalized online, the rest in prison, and that online violence materializes in real life. Social media platforms can be used to raise money for this or that cause, but they can also be used to organize pogroms.

France, in particular, is blocking the AI Act by demanding that "foundation models" – which enable applications like ChapGPT to run – not be regulated.

France wants to be able to use AI for national security reasons. I understand that. But we need rules to ensure that technologies are not abused by states. We don't want the Chinese model in Europe.

Paris also fears that over-regulating foundation models will stifle innovation in Europe. Is this true?

Like other countries, France argues that we know little about these AI technologies, and therefore cannot regulate them. But there is a fear that some of them may have the power to undermine democracy. We need to make sure that we control AI and prevent it from ruling us. Foundation models must be tested before they are used. Before letting the tiger out of the cage, we need to be sure that it won't kill us.

Nor is France in favor of a provision of the Media Freedom Act [MFA, currently being negotiated], which aims to reduce the possibility for states to spy on journalists. Is France wrong?

It's the same story: Paris is convinced that technology can help strengthen its national security. The MFA sets strict limits on spying on journalists, who are currently unprotected at the EU level. Let me remind you that some European leaders consider journalists to be public enemies.

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