The European Commission on Friday formally recommended EU candidate status for war-torn Ukraine, providing a huge morale boost to the country as the casualties of Russia’s ongoing military aggression mount and as Kyiv waits for desperately needed weapons.
“We all know that the Ukrainians are willing to die for the European perspective,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference announcing the decision. “We want them to live the European dream with us.”
The Commission also recommended candidate status for Moldova, Ukraine’s small and impoverished neighbor, which has taken in hundreds of thousands of war refugees. Georgia, which has also applied for membership, will have to wait and settle for the rhetorical encouragement of the “membership perspective.”
Crucially, for both Ukraine and Moldova, the Commission did not recommend imposing any conditions before granting formal candidate status.
However, the final decision rests with the 27 heads of state and government of the European Council, who will address the issue at a summit next week. On Thursday, the leaders of France, Germany and Italy, during a visit to Kyiv, announced their support, a strong signal that the Council will affirm the Commission’s recommendation.
While von der Leyen said that the College of Commissioners had not presented any obstacles for Ukraine and Moldova before the Council summit, he described a long and arduous path with many conditions that must be met after the granting of candidate status. These include benchmarks that must be achieved for accession negotiations to begin.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the Commission’s move. “It is the first step on the road to EU accession which will certainly bring our Victory closer,” he said. tweetedadding that he hoped for a “positive outcome” from the summit.
Big changes in the EU
The decision to recommend formal candidate status for Ukraine, in particular, heralds wide-ranging and profound changes for the entire EU, which will not be easy.
This is partly because Ukraine’s relatively large population (more than 40 million before the full-scale Russian invasion in February) will fundamentally change the balance of power in EU decision-making. Ukraine, as a Member State, would have a great deal of say in qualified majority voting policies, in which the population plays a role, and Ukraine would also be entitled to a sizeable delegation in the European Parliament.
Von der Leyen at Friday’s press conference cast an overwhelmingly positive tone on Ukraine’s prospects as a member country and praised its efforts so far to comply with EU standards and values and adopt EU policies and procedures, something that Kyiv has been doing so since 2016 as part of its Political Association Agreement, and a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with Brussels.
“With that, Ukraine has already implemented about 70 percent of the EU acquis, that is, the rules, the standards and the norms,” von der Leyen said.
When pressed on the conditions that would precede the start of formal membership negotiations, von der Leyen acknowledged that steps would be needed, but indicated that progress depended largely on Ukraine.
He also acknowledged that war is a burden, and some EU officials and diplomats have suggested that it will be extremely difficult for Ukraine to move forward until peace is restored.
“We propose to give the European perspective and candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova and then we hope and have discussed with the countries that certain reforms must be fulfilled,” von der Leyen said. “Again, it is a dynamic process. I really insist on that. So it’s not a rigid process that has set deadlines or steps that, once done, can never be undone.”
She continued: “We hope that these reforms will be made. If so, then it is based on merit, then there is forward movement. As long as these reforms are not made, there is stagnation. So nothing progresses. And sometimes if you see, we’re talking about other applicants, not these three, if you see a regression, you also see that the accession process is regressing. It is in the hands of the applicants. It’s based on merit.”
In general, he said: “It is Ukraine that has it in its hands, and what could be better to shape its own future?”
For Moldova, which has fought for decades with the Russian-backed breakaway region of Transnistria, the situation is much the same as in Ukraine.
Officials said progress is needed in each country to strengthen the rule of law, as well as anti-corruption measures, and to modernize their judiciaries and generally prepare their economies for further integration into the EU’s single market.
EU enlargement commissioner Olivér Várhelyi, who joined von der Leyen at the news conference, confirmed that membership talks would not start without notable progress in meeting several criteria.
“Starting accession negotiations is further ahead,” said Várhelyi. “Today is not about that decision. Once the conditions are met, we will have to go back and reflect on whether we have met all the criteria for the next step, which will be the start of accession negotiations. But that’s another set of decisions to make. That’s not for today.
While the Commission’s formal recommendation was applauded wholeheartedly, if cautiously, in Kyiv and Chisinau, and indeed in almost all of Ukraine and Moldova, there was clear disappointment for Georgia, which faced a brief war with Russia in 2008, and where some of its sovereign territory is still occupied by Russia.
While the suggestion of a “European perspective” was intended as encouragement, the Commission’s recommendation effectively gutted a plan to treat Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine as a privileged “trio” without the EU’s broader Eastern Partnership agenda. , which was created to support the westernization of former Soviet lands.
Georgia has suffered severe domestic political turmoil in recent years, and its failure to obtain a candidate status recommendation reflected a corresponding failure of Georgian leaders and European Council President Charles Michel, who aggressively intervened in the political crisis. national, to overcome these disorders. .
Although the Commission’s decisions were widely expected, that predictability did not diminish the feeling that the College had taken an important step that would ultimately reshape the European Union for decades to come.
“We have a clear message,” said von der Leyen. “And that is: yes, Ukraine deserves a European perspective. Yes, Ukraine should be welcome as a candidate country. This is with the understanding that good work has been done, but there is also important work to be done.”
Commission deputy chairman Valdis Dombrovskis, a former Latvian prime minister, called Friday’s recommendation of candidate status “a historic moment” and said it was “symbolically important in bringing hope and perspective to Ukraine and its people.”
“We are also clearly sending the signal that we are not accepting Russian thinking,” Dombrovskis added. “We insist that those countries can choose for themselves where they want to belong and make their own decisions.”
Barbara Moens contributed to this article.
This article has been updated.