The European Commission on Friday formally recommended EU candidate status for war-ravaged Ukraine, delivering a huge morale boost to the country as casualties mount from Russia’s ongoing military aggression and as Kyiv waits for desperately needed weapons.
“We all know that Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a news conference where she announced the decision. “We want them to live with us the European dream.”
The Commission also recommended candidate status for Moldova, Ukraine’s small, impoverished neighbor, which has taken in hundreds of thousands of war refugees. Georgia, which has also applied for membership, will have to wait and must settle for the rhetorical encouragement of “membership perspective.”
Crucially, for both Ukraine and Moldova, the Commission did not recommend imposing any conditions to be met before the granting of formal candidate status.
The final decision, however, lies with the 27 heads of state and government on the European Council, who are due to take up the question 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 the Council will affirm the Commission’s recommendation.
While von der Leyen said the College of Commissioners had not laid out any hurdles for Ukraine and Moldova prior to the Council summit, she described a long, arduous path with many conditions to be met after the granting of candidate status. These include benchmarks to be achieved in order for accession negotiations to begin.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the Commission’s move. “It’s the 1st step on the EU membership path that’ll certainly bring our Victory closer,” he tweeted, adding he expected a “positive result” from the summit.
Major changes to the EU
The decision to recommend formal candidate status for Ukraine, in particular, portends wide-ranging and profound changes for the entire EU, which will not be easy.
This is partly because Ukraine’s relatively big population — more than 40 million before the full-scale Russian invasion in February — stands to fundamentally shift the balance of power in EU decision-making. Ukraine, as a member state, would carry heavy weight in policies made by qualified majority voting, in which population plays a role, and Ukraine would also be entitled to a sizable delegation in the European Parliament.
Von der Leyen at Friday’s news conference struck overwhelmingly positive tones about Ukraine’s prospects as a member country, and praised its efforts so far to live up to EU standards and values, and to adopt EU policies and procedures — something Kyiv has been doing since 2016 as part of its political Association Agreement, and deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with Brussels.
“With that, Ukraine has already implemented roughly 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 she indicated that forward progress was largely up to Ukraine.
She also acknowledged that the war is a burden, and some EU officials and diplomats have suggested it will be extremely difficult for Ukraine’s bid to move forward until peace is restored.
“We propose to grant the European perspective and the candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova and then we expect and we have discussed with the countries that certain reforms have to be fulfilled,” von der Leyen said. “Again, it is a dynamic process. I really insist on that. So, it is not a rigid process that has defined timelines or steps that once done can never be undone.”
She continued, “We expect these reforms to be done. If so, then it’s merits-based, then there’s a movement forward. As long as these reforms are not done, there is stagnation. So nothing moves forward. And sometimes if you see — we are speaking about other applicants not these three — if you see backsliding, you also see that the accession process is moving backwards. It’s in the hands of the applicants. It’s merits-based.”
On the whole, she said: “It is Ukraine that has it in their hands — and what could be better to shape your own future?”
For Moldova, which has struggled for decades with the Russian-backed breakaway region of Transnistria, the situation is largely similar to Ukraine.
Officials indicated that 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.
The EU’s 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 various criteria.
“Starting accession negotiations is further down the line,” Várhelyi said. “Today is not about that decision. Once conditions are met, then we will have to come back and reflect on it — whether we have all the criteria met to make the next step, which is going to be the start of accession negotiations. But that is another set of decisions to be made. That is not for today.”
While the Commission’s formal recommendation was cheered heartily, if cautiously, in Kyiv and Chișinău, and indeed throughout nearly all of Ukraine and Moldova, there was clear disappointment for Georgia, which itself faced a brief war with Russia in 2008, and where some of its sovereign territory is still occupied by Russia.
While the suggestion of “European perspective” was intended as encouragement, the Commission’s recommendation effectively blew apart a plan to treat Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine as a privileged “trio” without the EU’s broader Eastern Partnership program, which was created to support the Westernization of former Soviet lands.
Georgia has suffered in recent years from serious internal political turmoil, and the failure to secure a recommendation of candidate status reflected a corresponding failure by Georgian leaders, and by European Council President Charles Michel who intervened aggressively in the national political crisis, to overcome those disruptions.
While the Commission’s decisions were widely expected, that predictability did not diminish the sense that the College had taken a major step that would ultimately redraw the European Union in the decades to come.
“We have one clear message,” von der Leyen said. “And that is: Yes, Ukraine deserves European perspective. Yes, Ukraine should be welcome as a candidate country. This is on the understanding that good work has been done, but important work also remains to be done.”
Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis, a former Latvian prime minister, called Friday’s recommendation of candidate status “a historic moment” and said that it was “symbolically important to provide hope and perspective for Ukraine and its people.”
“We’re also clearly sending the signal that we are not accepting Russia’s thinking,” Dombrovskis added. “We insist that those countries can choose themselves where they want to belong and make their own choices.”
Barbara Moens contributed to this article.
This article has been updated.