*Updates with Zelenskyy, Sandu comments
The EU should grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, bringing them a step closer to bloc membership, while Georgia still has some homework to do, the European Commission said on Friday (17 June) in a highly-anticipated opinion on the bloc’s future enlargement.
Ukraine applied for EU membership just days after Russia launched its invasion on 24 February, with Georgia and Moldova following suit over fears of aggression and influence from Moscow.
“Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the country’s aspiration and the country’s determination to live up to European values and standards,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in Brussels.
“We have one main message: Yes, Ukraine deserves a European perspective. It should be welcomed as a candidate country, on the understanding that important work remains to be done,” Von der Leyen said.
She made the announcement sporting Ukrainian colours, a yellow blazer over a blue shirt.
The step follows a month-long, highly symbolic debate in which several high-ranking EU officials and leaders came out in favour of starting the procedures for Ukraine to one day join the bloc as a full member.
“At the same time, we know that further work needs to be done,” von der Leyen said, laying out four reform areas where Ukraine will have to fulfil conditions to proceed in the process.
These would include the rule of law, “setting up the necessary institutions for the judiciary to function effectively”, speeding up the selection of judges to the Constitutional Court and the members of the justice systems, legislation on oligarchs, and anti-corruption efforts.
On fundamental rights, von der Leyen pointed out that Ukraine has achieved 80% of the recommendation of the Venice Commission but still lacks the adoption of the law on national minorities.
“The entire process is merits-based. It goes by the book, and therefore, progress depends entirely on Ukraine,” Von der Leyen said, also as a message to member states who are generally more sceptical towards EU enlargement.
“Ukrainians are willing to die, and we want them to live” the European dream, she added.
Never before has an opinion been given so quickly on EU candidacy, which leaves EU leaders roughly a week to study the document before deciding on the matter at a crucial EU summit on 23-24 June.
The opinion is set to serve as a basis for EU leaders who are expected to approve Ukraine’s candidate status with strict conditions, though membership may take years or even decades.
Launching accession talks requires unanimous approval from all member countries.
Ukraine leads the way
The European Commission’s decisions also comes after France, Germany, Italy, and Romania said on Thursday (16 June) they favour Ukraine receiving “immediate” candidate status, which was seen as a significant indication of the outcome of the EU leader’s discussion next week.
Their rhetoric, however, has laid bare the gap between words and actions as each of the three leaders has come under fire over the past weeks over their commitment.
In the case of France, criticism has been that Paris has been too lenient toward Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demands, and when it comes to Berlin, that is has been too slow to supply Ukraine with the urgently needed heavy weaponry.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, speaking alongside the four leaders on Thursday, promised Ukraine was ready to put in the work to become a fully-fledged EU member.
“It’s the first step on the EU membership path that’ll certainly bring our victory closer,” Zelenskyy wrote on social media on Friday, adding that he was “grateful” to EU chief Ursula von der Leyen and “each EC member for a historic decision”.
Some EU member states, including the Netherlands and Denmark, are still sceptical of more neighbourhood countries becoming EU membership candidates.
Meanwhile, three of the four Western Balkan EU candidates signed a joint statement with Ukraine in support of its EU candidacy, expressing that fast-tracking the war-torn eastern country would not mess up their own slow-moving EU integration but should “complement and strengthen each other”.
The statement of support comes as EU leaders are set to meet with their Western Balkan counterparts on 23 June, just before discussing the European Commission’s recommendation.
Moldova now, Georgia ‘later’
At the same time, the European Commission also recommended granting Moldova EU candidate status on the understanding that the country will carry out reforms.
“It is on a real pro-reform, anti-corruption and European path for the first time since independence,” Von der Leyen said.
“Of course, Moldova still has a long way to go (…), but we believe the country has the potential to live up to the requirements,” she said, adding this would require “major improvements” in the economy and public administration, on rule of law, anti-corruption and fighting organised crime.
Moldova, a country of 2.6 million people, is one of Europe’s poorest countries and has taken in a few hundred thousand refugees from Ukraine.
Moldova’s President Maia Sandu hailed the European Commission’s decision on Telegram as “important moment for the future of the Republic of Moldova”, which would be “the hope our citizens need”, adding that “we know that the process will be difficult, but we are determined to follow this path”.
For both Ukraine and Moldova further progress will be conditioned by compliance in various policy fields, with the European Commission set to assess the situation by the end of the year, EU senior officials say.
Meanwhile, Georgia, the third country in what has been dubbed the Associated Trio, is set to be left behind for now.
The country has been granted the European “perspective” until it fulfils conditions spelt out by the European Commission that lead to EU candidate status.
“We would like to see an end to the political polarisation of the country, (…) we need the cooperation of all parties in the country and the delivery of the agreement that was reached with the facilitation of the European Union,” European Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhely said.
Internally, Georgia’s ruling party has faced intense pressure from opposition parties to follow Ukraine’s lead, seen as a window of opportunity to advance its own EU aspirations, a goal enshrined in the country’s constitution.
However, the EU-aspirant nation has been gripped by a political crisis over the past years, with concerns in the West over Georgia’s backsliding on commitments to democracy and European Council President Charles Michel’s inter-party talks last year.
The Commission said it will monitor Georgia’s progress and set to assess the situation by the end of the year,
[Edited by Alice Taylor]