European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on Friday that Ukraine and Moldova had been granted candidate status in a symbolic step on the long path to become members of the EU.
“Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the country's aspiration and the country's determination to live up to European values and standards,” she said at a press conference in Brussels, where she wore the blue and yellow of the country's flag.
The EU’s executive arm set out conditions on the understanding that Ukraine carry out a number of reforms. Candidate countries must embrace future reforms on the rule of law, justice and anti-corruption.
The commission also recommended that Georgia receive candidate status, but only after it meets specific conditions, two sources said.
The recommendation is particularly significant for Ukraine, which has invested so much of its political future on a closer relationship with Europe as it seeks moral support in countering Russian aggression.
“Ukraine is a European state which has given ample proof of its adherence to the values on which the European Union is founded,” the recommendation says. “The commission, therefore, recommends that Ukraine be granted candidate status.”
There is no existing fast-track path to speed up the arduous membership process, which can normally last more than a decade.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Friday praised the decision, which comes nearly four months into Russia's invasion of the country.
"It's the first step on the EU membership path that'll certainly bring our victory closer," he wrote.
Croatia was the last country to join the bloc and its application process lasted 10 years before it was formally accepted in 2013. The final decision to grant the status will have to be approved by all 27 member states.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi on Thursday boosted Ukraine’s prospects when they warmly endorsed the membership bid on a visit to Kyiv, reversing earlier hesitation in Paris and Berlin to accelerate the process.
They were joined by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis in the highest-profile delegation to visit Ukraine since Russia attacked at the end of February.
The Kremlin has been hostile to Ukraine's bid for a decade but President Vladimir Putin said his doubts were only related to how viable Kyiv's participation in the EU would be over time. "We have nothing against it," he said. "It is not a military bloc. It’s the right of any country to join economic unions."
EU “enlargement” as a policy has also stalled since 2018. EU member states cannot agree on whether to bring other official candidates — Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey — into the bloc.
One senior diplomat involved in discussion on enlargement told Reuters that Georgia, once one of the most pro-EU and pro-US countries seeking to join the bloc, is further away from candidate status.
“Georgia has become polarised and its political system dysfunctional,” the diplomat said. “Key politicians seem to be unwilling or unable to move ahead with democratic reforms.”
The bloc’s leaders are set to discuss the matter in Brussels on June 23 to June 24. Backing by member states is not a done deal as some governments, including Denmark and the Netherlands, have previously expressed reservations to granting the status.
However, with the bloc’s biggest members now on board, it will be difficult for others to block the decision.
The steps that Kyiv will need to take, according to an EU document seen by Bloomberg staff:
- put in place legislation on a selection procedure for judges of the Constitutional Court
- finalise integrity vetting of candidates for various judicial councils
- strengthen the fight against corruption, including via the appointment of a new head of the Specialised Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office
- ensure that anti-money laundering legislation is in compliance with the standards of the Financial Action Task Force
- embrace anti-oligarch legislation
- tackle the influence of vested interests by adopting a new media law aligned with EU media directives
- finalise reforms of the legal framework for national minorities
The commission plans to monitor Ukraine’s progress in fulfilling these conditions and will report on them by the end of the year, according to the document.
Ukraine formally applied to join the EU at the end of February and Ms von der Leyen delivered a membership questionnaire to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy when she visited Kyiv in April.
She returned last weekend to Kyiv to discuss the membership recommendation.