Brussels backs Ukraine and Moldova as candidates for EU membership

Ukraine and Moldova have received support from the European Commission in their bids to join the EU.

However, EU leaders will have the last word at a summit on the 23rd and 24th of June in Brussels.

Both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his Moldovan counterpart Maia Sandu praised the announcement.

“We all know that Ukrainians are willing to die for the European vision,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said of Ukraine. “We want them to live with us, the EU.”

She lauded the country’s pre-war measures to combat corruption, limit oligarchic dominance, and promote minorities’ rights, however, she added, “We want to see results on the ground.”

She also mentioned that the country has a “very robust legislative, presidential democracy” and that the government has kept the country running despite the war. “Ukraine has a very dynamic and engaged civil society,” she added.

“To summarise our position on Ukraine, we have one clear message: yes, Ukraine deserves a European viewpoint, and yes, Ukraine should be welcomed as a candidate country,” she told reporters.

Moldova, too, has candidate status, but not Georgia.

Moldova, too, has a solid basis in place to achieve institutional stability that ensures democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and economic integration with the EU, according to the Commission.

“We believe the country has the potential to meet the requirements if the country’s leaders continue on track,” von der Leyen added.

However, in the case of Georgia, the Commission stated that it should only be given a “European perspective,” and that candidate status should be granted only once a number of criteria have been addressed.

“Getting a European perspective is a tremendous step forward for Georgia; it’s a big victory, and the door is wide open,” the Commission chief said. “It is now up to Georgia to take the appropriate steps,” which “of course dictates the timing.”

“The sooner you provide, the faster progress will be made,” von der Leyen remarked.

For Ukraine, this is a “historic decision.”

If EU leaders approve candidate status at their Council session next week, it will be more of a symbolic gesture. It does not entitle Ukraine or Moldova to further EU funds, nor does it imply that formal admission negotiations will commence.

Both countries will need to keep pushing forward with their reform agendas, with von der Leyen emphasising that accession is a “dynamic process” with no “set schedule.”

“We anticipate these reforms to be implemented, and if they are, then it will be merit-based, and there will be progress,” she added.

Despite this, Zelenskyy moved to Twitter to “commend the positive Commission’s result,” which he called “historic.”

“It’s the first step on the EU membership path that will undoubtedly bring our victory closer,” he also said, adding that he now anticipates “a favourable result” at next week’s European Council meeting.

Sandu said the Commission’s recommendation provides a “strong signal of support for Moldova and our population,” promising that the government will “work hard” to complete the necessary reforms and that they can now “depend on EU Council support.”

Ukraine is also backed by France, Germany, and Italy.

It comes just a day after the presidents of the EU’s three largest member states — France, Germany, and Italy — made their long-awaited first trip to Kyiv and expressed their strong support for Ukraine’s ambition.

Emmanuel Macron of France stated that it would send “a powerful, swift, and expected gesture of optimism and clarity to Ukraine and its people,” while Olaf Scholz of Germany stated that “Ukraine belongs to the European family.”

They emphasised, however, that there would be limitations and that the war-torn country would not be treated differently from other countries that have been in talks to join the 27-nation bloc for years.

Any country wishing to join the EU must meet the “Copenhagen criteria,” which include a functioning market economy, stable democracy, and the rule of law, as well as adoption of all EU legislation, including the euro. These normally necessitate a series of reforms on the part of the candidate country.

What’s the backstory here?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow claimed was prompted in part by the West’s seeming encroachment on its sphere of influence, has backfired, resulting in a flurry of countries seeking to join the EU and NATO military alliance.

Just four days after Russia launched its war on February 24, Ukraine proclaimed its desire to join the EU. Kyiv completed all of the necessary and extensive paperwork in a month after receiving it on April 8 during European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s visit to the Ukrainian capital.

Moldova and Georgia were quick to follow suit.

The European Union’s leaders are divided.

Ukraine can rely on the Baltic states, who have all indicated unequivocally that Ukraine belongs in the EU. However, some other nations, particularly those with strong ties to the Western Balkans, may press for tough requirements to avoid accusations of favoritism.

From Kyiv, Macron emphasized that he, Scholz, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi “will have to establish together the unity of the 27” before the EU Council summit next week.

According to Marie Dumoulin, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) Wider Europe program, Denmark, Portugal, and the Netherlands have expressed reservations about Ukraine’s candidacy.

“This had to do with concerns of the rule of law and the battle against corruption in Ukraine,” she told Euronews. “These are real issues that the Ukrainian government recognises it needs to work on.”

“Of course, there is the claim that the Ukrainian state is unprepared.”

“The other concern is that by sending this kind of signal to Ukraine and possibly Moldova in the midst of a war, we may be sending a negative signal to other countries that have been candidates for EU membership or that are not yet recognised as candidates but aspire to it,” she added, explaining that these EU hopefuls may conclude that the process has “little to do with them and more to do with geopolitical issues.”

“To ensure that we have all the member states on board, the best way to do it is to assure full credibility and full adherence to the standards, and this is what we are doing in this situation,” Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi told reporters on Thursday.

The Commission’s judgement however emphasised that nothing is set in stone and that there are no guarantees “The accession process continues to be guided by pre-determined criteria and circumstances. This allows each country in the process to advance on its own merits, but it also means that progress toward EU membership can be reversed if the fundamental prerequisites are no longer met.”

Why is the EU heading toward affirmative action?

The candidate status, according to Guntram Wolff, director of the Bruegel think tank, could not only help Ukraine rebuild after the war and strengthen its institutions by “making it more likely that recovery money is well spent,” but it “could even be a catalyst for EU reforms,” he said in a note on Thursday.

“Decision-making processes must become more straightforward, and the EU must move away from unanimity in crucial areas,” he continued.

Camino Mortera-Martinez, the head of the Centre for European Reform’s (CER) Brussels office, called enlargement the “trickiest” problem confronting the EU, and said the Commission’s early pushing on member states for Ukraine membership “is working.”

“Many believe Ukraine is not yet ready to join the EU, but they recognise that the EU cannot afford to put it in the queue for years, as it has done with other applicants such as North Macedonia,” she wrote in a letter.

She also gave a tentative endorsement to Macron’s proposal for a European Political Community, which would allow nations that want to join or have left the EU to have closer links to it.

Related

Regions that break away from the rest of the country could be a concern.

The separatist areas within Ukraine and Moldova’s borders are one concern that could stymie an already lengthy admission process.

Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine declared their regions independent in the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion, and only Moscow recognises the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Crimea, and Russia’s illegal annexation of the territory in 2014, is also a source of contention.

Transnistria, Moldova’s pro-Russian region, will almost certainly be a stumbling block in the country’s bid to join the EU, as Sandu admitted during a joint press conference with Macron earlier this week.

“The illegal deployment of Russian forces in the Transnistrian region is a weak point of vulnerability for the Republic of Moldova,” she stated.

On Thursday, an EU official told reporters that the two countries have “internationally recognised borders” that are “recognised by member states,” and that the bloc maintains a “quite hard position of non-recognition” of the breakaway areas.

He did say, though, that these issues would have to be addressed later in the accession process.

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