BRUSSELS – The European Commission on Friday recommended granting Ukraine candidate status in the country’s bid to become a member of the European Union, the first formal step in a process that normally takes more than a decade.
It also recommended a similar status for Moldova – which applied for membership in the bloc shortly after Ukraine, spurred by concerns about Russia’s threats in the region – but not to neighboring Georgia, which was deemed unwilling to run for the EU.
The move on Ukraine took on an air of greater inevitability on Wednesday, when the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Romania announced their support for Ukraine’s path during a visit to Kyiv. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, opened the meeting of EU commissioners on Friday in Brussels, wearing a blue shirt and yellow jacket, the national color of Ukraine.
But the commission’s recommendation on Friday is just the first step on a long road. The final decision rests with the EU leaders who will meet on June 23-24 in Brussels to tackle the thorny issue.
The Commission stressed that the status of candidates in Ukraine and Moldova is linked to reforms in the rule of law, justice and the fight against corruption. “The start of accession negotiations is a long way off,” Oliver Varhely, the bloc’s chief enlargement official, told reporters. “Today it is not about that. Once the conditions are met, we will have to go back to it and think.”
EU officials said the nomination is a morale booster, aimed at motivating candidate countries to make further reforms. Steps Ukraine needs to take include strengthening the fight against corruption and against the oligarchy, legislation on the selection of judges for the country’s Supreme Court, protection of minorities, and a new media law. Of great concern are the nation’s problems with endemic corruption, as well as all the setbacks it will face after the war.
The commission said it would assess progress at the end of this year, leaving the war-torn country less than seven months to introduce a number of complex and costly reforms.
EU member states are also divided among those who believe that while Ukraine is not technically ready to initiate the massive changes required to join Bloc 27, it should still be granted candidate status as a meaningful gesture of support in its defense against Russian aggression. Supporters believe that this will allow Ukraine’s leaders to make clear that their country has a bright future after the war ends, and will also begin to integrate the country into the bloc, which will finance much of any reconstruction.
Other countries would prefer Ukraine to be given some sort of “light candidate” status: a promise, but with caveats and criteria to meet along the way, while acknowledging that its path to full membership will likely be a very long one. These countries believe that this approach is not only more realistic, but also shows integrity towards Ukraine rather than making false assurances.
“From the Commission’s point of view, Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the country’s ambition and determination to adhere to European values and standards,” Ms. von der Leyen said on Friday, adding that Ukraine had already established around 70 percent of EU norms, standards and norms.
“We all know that Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective,” she added. “We want them to live the European dream with us.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the commission’s move and said it would help his country’s efforts to stave off Russian aggression. “It is the first step on the path to EU membership that will surely bring us closer to victory,” he said wrote on twitter.
Tess Fielder Contributed to reporting from London.