The European Commission has said Ukraine should be given candidate status to join the EU, in a show of confidence in the wartime government of Volodymyr Zelenskiy and a diplomatic blow to Vladimir Putin.
The EU executive also recommended candidate status for Moldova, another former Soviet state that launched an EU membership bid soon after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But it gave a more guarded response to Georgia, saying the country needed to carry out further anti-corruption and judicial reforms.
EU leaders will decide next week whether to grant the three states EU candidate status, although full membership would be likely to take years. The decision would be a historic step for Ukraine, where reformers have been seeking change since the Maidan protests of 2014, events that were the prelude to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and war on its neighbor.
The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said Ukraine had made progress in the last eight years. She cited reforms to create a market economy, independent judiciary and to tackle corruption but said more needed to be done to allow Ukraine to progress in membership talks.
“Ukraine should be welcomed as a candidate country. This is on the understanding that good work has been done, but important work also remains to be done,” she told reporters. “The entire process is merit-based. So it goes by the book and therefore progress depends entirely on Ukraine. It is Ukraine that has it in their hands.”
“We all know that Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective. We want them to live with us, the European dream,” Von der Leyen added.
Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president, said the EU proposal would “certainly bring our victory closer”.
The outcome for Ukraine to get candidate status looks positive, after a visit by four EU leaders to meet Zelenskiy on Thursday. “Ukraine belongs to the European family,” said the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, at a press conference with France’s Emmanuel Macron, Italy’s Mario Draghi, Romania’s Klaus Iohannis and Zelenskiy.
Joining the EU could take years. Some EU countries have qualms about offering false hope to Ukraine in advance of demanding membership talks that Macron suggested may take decades to complete. The French president has called for the creation of a new European political community to allow prospective and former members to deepen ties on security, energy and movement of people.
While Paris insists this is not a substitute for EU enlargement, Kyiv is wary of anything that could slow down joining the bloc.
The decision to grant a country EU candidate status is a highly charged procedural step that usually takes years and paves the way for talks on aligning with EU law. Albania took more than five years to receive candidate status. North Macedonia became an EU candidate in 2005, but is still waiting to open membership talks.
Von der Leyen said the commission also wanted EU candidate status for Moldova, which declared independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991 and is concerned about the spillover effect of the Ukraine conflict. Moldova, Von der Leyen said, was on “a real pro-reform, anti-corruption and European path for the first time since independence”. She said its economy and public administration still needed “major improvements”, but expressed confidence in the government.
Georgia, another post-Soviet state, ought to be granted “a European perspective”, a lower rung on the EU membership ladder than candidate status, the commission said.
Olivér Várhelyi, the EU enlargement commissioner, called for an end to Georgia’s political polarisation, as he listed a series of Tbilisi reforms needed to carry out to gain candidate status. These included judicial reforms, the creation of an independent anti-corruption agency, intensifying the fight against organized crime and greater protection of media freedom.