EU expected to support Ukraine’s membership application as war brings major transformation

  • Schultz says Ukraine “belongs to the European family”
  • “Europe can create a new history of freedom,” says Zelensky.

Kyiv/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union’s executive commission was expected to give its blessing on Friday to placing a candidate for membership in Ukraine and two other former Soviet Union states in a historic eastward shift in Europe’s outlook triggered by Russia’s invasion.

Ukraine applied to join the European Union just four days after Russian troops poured across its border in February. Four days later, Moldova and Georgia – two more countries that are competing with the breakaway regions occupied by Russian troops.

Leaders of the European Union’s three biggest powers – Germany, France and Italy – showed their solidarity on Thursday by visiting Kyiv with the president of Romania.

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“Ukraine belongs to the European family,” German Olaf Scholz said after meeting President Volodymyr Zelensky. EU leaders are expected to endorse the commission’s recommendation at a summit next week.

Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia will still face a long process of achieving the required criteria for membership, and other candidates are in the waiting room. Membership is also not guaranteed – talks have stalled for years with Turkey, officially nominated since 1999.

But launching the formal process of accepting the three ex-Soviet countries, a move that seemed out of the question a few months ago, amounts to a shift on a par with the decision in the 1990s to welcome the former communist states into Eastern Europe.

“It is precisely because of the courage of the Ukrainians that Europe can create a new history of freedom, finally eliminating the gray area in Eastern Europe between the European Union and Russia,” Zelensky said in his video night speech.

“Ukraine has moved closer to the European Union, closer than at any time since independence,” he said, noting that unspecified “good news” was coming.

If accepted, Ukraine would be the largest country in the European Union by area and the fifth largest by population. All three aspirants are much poorer than any current member of the European Union, with per capita output about half of what it is in the poorest EU country.

All have a recent history of volatile politics, internal turmoil, entrenched organized crime, and unresolved conflicts with Russian-backed separatists declaring sovereignty over territory protected by Moscow’s forces.

port siege

President Vladimir Putin has officially ordered his “special military operation” to disarm and “discredit” Ukraine. One of his main goals was to stop the expansion of Western institutions, which he described as a threat to Russia.

But the war, which claimed thousands of lives, destroyed entire cities, and sent millions to flee, had the opposite effect. Finland and Sweden applied to join the military alliance of NATO, and the European Union opened its arms in the east.

Inside Ukraine, Russian forces were defeated in an attempt to storm the capital in March, but have since returned to focus on capturing more territory in the east.

The four-month-old war has entered a severe attrition phase, with Russian forces relying on their formidable advantage in artillery firepower to make their way into Ukrainian cities.

Ukrainian officials said their forces were still holding out in Severodonetsk, the site of the worst fighting in recent weeks, on the eastern bank of the Seversky Donets River. The district governor said it was impossible to evacuate more than 500 civilians trapped inside a chemical plant where the troops are deployed.

In the surrounding Donbas region, which Moscow claims on behalf of its separatist proxies, Ukrainian forces mainly defend the opposite bank of the river.

In the south, Ukraine launched a counterattack, claiming to penetrate the largest patch still under Russia’s control in the area it had conquered in the conquest. There have been few reports from the front lines to confirm the situation in that area.

Ukraine claimed that its forces bombed a Russian tugboat transporting soldiers, weapons and ammunition to Russia-occupied Snake Island, a strategic location in the Black Sea.

Among the main concerns of world leaders is the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s ports on the Black Sea, preventing exports from one of the world’s largest sources of grain, and threatening to cause a global food crisis.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he was skeptical that Moscow would agree to a UN proposal to open the ports.

“I already had talks a few weeks ago with President Putin, but he did not want to accept a UN resolution on this issue,” he said.

Russia blames the food crisis on Western sanctions, which it says are hurting its grain exports, and Ukraine’s ports cannot be opened because of the mines.

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Additional reporting by Reuters offices; Written by Peter Graf, Editing by Angus McSwan

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