The EU’s executive on Wednesday recommended opening formal membership talks with Ukraine and Moldova, in a major show of support for Kyiv as it battles Russia.
Ukraine launched its bid to become part of the European Union right after Moscow’s all-out invasion in February 2022, and was officially named a candidate to join in June of the same year.
“Today is a historic day,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said.
“Ukraine continues to face tremendous hardship and tragedy provoked by Russia’s war of aggression and yet the Ukrainians are deeply reforming their country.”
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the move as the “right step” for Europe.
“Our country must be in the European Union. Ukrainians deserve it both for their defence of European values and for the fact that even in times of full-scale war, we keep our word,” he posted online.
Moldovan President Maia Sandu thanked Brussels and said her country was “firmly on the path for EU membership and we will continue working relentlessly towards this goal”.
The EU’s 27 leaders still have to sign off on the recommendations at a summit in December.
Von der Leyen said Ukraine and Moldova should be required to complete further reforms before a formal start date could be set.
She said her executive would issue an update on the progress in March 2024.
Even if Ukraine starts talks, it will still only be at the beginning of a painstaking process of reforms that could last for years -- if not decades -- before it joins the EU.
Alongside urging progress for Ukraine and Moldova, Brussels also suggested member states grant Georgia candidate status.
“I rejoice with the people of Georgia,” Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili wrote online.
Door ‘open’ to Bosnia
Balkan country Bosnia did not get the unalloyed seal of approval, failing to win clear backing for talks after becoming an EU candidate in December.
The commission recommended opening negotiations “once the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria is achieved”.
“We open the door very wide and we invite Bosnia,” von der Leyen said.
“Now to go through this door, for that, of course there has to be activity in Bosnia.”
The countries bidding to join the EU join an already crowded field of hopefuls.
Turkey began accession talks in 2005, but those are at a dead end. Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia are also stuck in negotiations.
The war in Ukraine has breathed fresh life into the EU’s stalled push to take on new members, as the bloc looks to keep Russian and Chinese influence at bay.
Ex-Soviet Moldova and Georgia both applied at the same time as Kyiv.
The positive signal from the EU provides a vital boost to Ukraine at a difficult time when its troops have failed to make a breakthrough and the West is distracted by turmoil in the Middle East.
The commission in June last year set Kyiv seven reform benchmarks to complete, including tackling graft and curbing oligarch power, before talks should start.
Von der Leyen said Ukraine had now completed “well over 90 percent of the necessary steps”.
But even diplomats from EU capitals that strongly back Kyiv admit that the debate in December will be tough -- and approval to start talks will likely be conditional on further reforms.
Allowing in a war-shattered nation of more than 40 million people would spell a major shift -- and huge costs -- for the bloc and will turn some countries currently receiving EU funds into net contributors.
Wrapped up with Ukraine’s membership push, and those of the other hopefuls, is a far more fundamental debate on how to make the EU manageable if it reaches 30 members or more.
Countries such as the Netherlands insist there can be no shortcuts on the road to membership.
Hungary, Russia’s closest ally in the EU, accuses Kyiv of curbing the rights of ethnic Hungarians.
“Ukraine is not suitable for European Union membership until peace is achieved, the country’s entry would bring war into the community, which obviously no one desires,” said Peter Szijjarto, Hungary’s foreign minister.
Szijjarto said Ukraine had not met the conditions required for EU candidate status, and Kyiv had violated the principles of minority rights within the community.
“Since the European Commission also acknowledges that Ukraine has not met the conditions for candidate status, we do not consider any further steps in the accession negotiations with Ukraine to be timely.”