European Commission backs Ukraine for EU candidate status

The European Commission has recommended that Ukraine should be granted European Union candidate status, a first step on the long road towards membership for the war-torn country.

The recommendation on Friday from the EU’s executive arm will now be discussed by leaders of the 27-nation bloc during a summit next week in Brussels. Launching accession talks requires unanimous approval from all member countries.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told reporters that the recommendation was on understanding that Ukraine carries out a number of reforms.

“Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the country’s aspiration and the country’s determination to live up to European values and standards,” she told reporters in Brussels. “The entire process is merits-based. It goes by the book and therefore, progress depends entirely on Ukraine.”

For her statement, von der Leyen wore Ukraine’s colours, a yellow blazer over a blue shirt.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the decision will help Kyiv in defeating Russia’s invasion.

“It’s the first step on the EU membership path that’ll certainly bring our victory closer. Grateful to @vonderleyen & each [European Commission] member for a historic decision,” Zelenskyy said on Twitter.

He added that he expected EU government leaders to approve the proposal next week.

The Kremlin said on Friday that it was closely following Ukraine’s efforts to become a member of the EU, especially in the light of increased defence cooperation within the bloc.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the issue “requires our heightened attention, because we are all aware of the intensification of discussions in Europe on the subject of strengthening the defence component of the EU”.

The European Commission also proposed making Moldova, which shares a long border with Ukraine, an EU membership candidate. Georgia will instead need to meet certain conditions before it can be granted the status, the body said in a statement.

Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane, reporting from Berlin, says “the devil is in the detail” over the European Commission’s move on Ukraine’s candidate status.

“[If a candidate,] the Ukrainians must comply with several different criteria but the most important ones are they have to prove that they have a stable democracy, a functioning market economy and that the rule of law pertains throughout their country,” Kane said.

“And they have to sign up to accepting all parts of EU legislation and that includes joining the euro [currency] when or if they join the EU,” he added.

Kane also noted there were a number of other countries “which have all been waiting as candidates to become members of the EU for a very considerable time”.

Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Kyiv, says there is a “general sense” in Ukraine and among its Western allies that if the candidacy recommendation does not go through, then Russian President Vladimir Putin could be “emboldened”.

“So it is a positive step, but there are very strict conditions that are being demanded of Ukraine with respect to tackling corruption and with respect to the rule of law,” Stratford said.

“Its entire legal system will be scrutinised by Brussels and it basically has to comply with the standards that Brussels sets out,” he added.

Never before has an opinion been given so quickly on EU candidacy. The recommendation comes a day after the bloc’s most powerful leaders visited Kyiv as it battles Russia’s invasion.

French President Emmanuel Macron had said during an official visit to Kyiv on Thursday that France, Germany, Italy and Romania were in favour of Ukraine receiving “immediate” candidate status.

Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi arrived in Ukraine by train and were joined by Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis before meeting Zelenskyy, who has been lobbying allies for support.

“The most important message of our visit is that Italy wants Ukraine in the EU,” Draghi said at a joint news conference.

Scholz said Ukraine “belongs in the European family” and that Berlin would continue to send Kyiv weapons “for as long as it is needed”.

Zelenskyy said Ukraine was ready to put in the work to become an EU member. He also called for EU states to help Kyiv meet its “essential needs in the field of defence”.

France announced it would send six Caesar self-propelled howitzers to add to the 12 already deployed on Ukraine’s eastern front. Germany’s Scholz has been repeatedly criticised for his cautious stance towards delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine, before announcing in April that it would deliver anti-aircraft systems.

Earlier this month, Macron had warned Ukraine’s EU membership would be a lengthy process and instead pushed for a “European political community” that would be open to non-EU members, like Ukraine and the United Kingdom, that wish to contribute to European security.

Joining the EU is a process that usually takes years.

Despite reservations among some member states, EU leaders are expected to approve Ukraine’s candidate status at a summit on June 23-24, though with stern conditions attached.

Zelenskyy told von der Leyen during her visit to Kyiv on June 12 that “all of Europe is a target for Russia, and Ukraine is just the first stage in this aggression”.

“This is why a positive EU response to the Ukrainian application for membership can be a positive answer to the question of whether the European project has a future at all,” he said.

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