BRUSSELS — The European Commission recommended on Friday that Ukraine be granted candidate status in the country’s bid to become a member of the European Union, the first formal step in a process that normally lasts longer than a decade.
It also recommended a similar status for Moldova — which applied for membership to the bloc soon after Ukraine, spurred by concerns about Russia’s threats in the region — but not for neighboring Georgia, which was deemed not ready for EU candidacy.
The move regarding Ukraine took on an air of greater inevitability on Wednesday, when the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Romania announced their support for Ukraine’s pathway during a visit to Kyiv. And Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s president, opened Friday’s meeting of EU commissioners in Brussels wearing a blue shirt and a yellow blazer, Ukraine’s national colors.
But the Commission’s recommendation on Friday is just the first step on a long road. The ultimate decision will be in the hands of European Union leaders who will meet June 23 and 24 in Brussels to tackle the thorny question.
And the Commission stressed that Ukraine’s and Moldova’s candidate statuses are tied to overhauls on the rule of law, justice and anti-corruption. “Starting accession negotiations is further down the line,” Oliver Varhelyi, the bloc’s top official for enlargement, told reporters. “Today it’s not about that. Once conditions are met, then we’ll have to come back to it and reflect.”
The candidacy is a morale boost, EU officials said, intended to motivate candidate countries to undertake further reforms. The steps that Ukraine is required to take include strengthening the fight against corruption and against oligarchs, legislation on the selection of judges to the country’s top court, protection of minorities and a new media law. Of serious concern are the nation’s problems with endemic corruption, as well as all of the setbacks it will face after the war.
The Commission said it would assess the progress at the end of this year, leaving the war-torn country less than seven months to introduce a number of complex and costly reforms.
The European Union’s member countries are also split between those who believe that even though Ukraine is not technically ready to begin the vast changes required to join the bloc of 27, it should still be granted candidate status as a meaningful gesture of support in its defense against Russian aggression. This, proponents believe, will allow Ukraine’s leaders to illustrate that their nation has a bright future after the war ends, and will also start integrating the country into the bloc, which will be funding much of any reconstruction.
Other countries would prefer that Ukraine be given a sort of “candidate light” status: a promise, but with caveats and benchmarks to meet along the way, recognizing that its path to full membership will most likely be very lengthy. Those nations think that approach is not only more realistic, but also demonstrates integrity toward Ukraine rather than making false assurances.
“In the view of the Commission, Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the country’s aspiration and the country’s determination to live up to European values and standards,” Ms. von der Leyen said on Friday, adding that Ukraine had already put in place about 70 percent of EU rules, standards and norms.
“We all know that Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective,” she added. “We want them to live with us the European dream.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine welcomed the Commission’s move and said it would help his country’s efforts to stave off Russian aggression. “It’s the 1st step on the EU membership path that’ll certainly bring our Victory closer,” he wrote on Twitter.
Tess Felder contributed reporting from London.