EU envoy hails Ukraine's moves to reform judiciary

FILE PHOTO: Ukraine's President Zelenskiy and European Commission President von der Leyen shake hands before meeting in Kyiv

KYIV (Reuters) - The European Union's ambassador to Ukraine said on Tuesday Kyiv was close to reaching a milestone in reform of its court system, an important step before starting accession talks with the 27-member bloc.

Ambassador Matti Maasikas welcomed the expected appointment this week of eight new members of Ukraine's High Council of Justice -- an important body which appoints, dismisses and disciplines judges -- as part of reforms of the judiciary.

The European Commission, the EU's executive, made reforming the judiciary one of its main recommendations when it offered Ukraine the status of candidate member last June despite Russia's invasion.

"Within reach a milestone in reforming Ukraine's court system, as advocated and supported by partners, including the EU, for years," Maasikas wrote on Twitter.

"Also part of the 7 recommendations linked with Ukraine's EU candidate country status. Am confident that Ukrainian judges will rise to the occasion."

Ukraine's parliament has already passed all the legislation sought by the EU before accession talks start, the speaker of the assembly said last month, but the road to membership is widely expected to be long, possibly lasting a decade.

Some watchdogs have also warned that powerful interests are prepared to push back against reforms, especially in the judicial system.

"They're not interested in having any disciplinary body," said lawyer Mykhailo Zhernakov, of the DEJURE Foundation which monitors judicial reforms.

Zhernakov and others have also raised concerns over a recent law governing the appointment of Constitutional Court judges which they say leaves room for political manipulation.

Frans Timmermans, a European Commission executive vice-president, visited Kyiv on Monday, and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy discussed plans for a Feb. 3 EU-Ukraine summit by phone with European Council President Charles Michel on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Dan Peleschuk, Editing by Timothy Heritage)