Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky praised as a “historic step” a recommendation by the European Union executive on Wednesday to invite Kyiv to begin membership talks as soon as it meets final conditions, even as it fights to repel Russia’s war.
The recommendation by the European Commission is an important milestone on Kyiv’s road to Western integration and a geo-political gambit for the EU as Ukraine has been fighting against a large-scale Russian invasion since February 2022.
The Commission said the talks should formally be launched once Kyiv satisfies remaining conditions related to reining in corruption, adopting a law on lobbying in line with EU standards and strengthening national minority safeguards.
“This is a strong and historic step that paves the way to a stronger EU with Ukraine as its member,” Zelensky said on social media, vowing to press on with the necessary reforms.
The 27 national EU leaders are next due to decide mid-December on whether to accept the Commission’s recommendation. Any such decision requires unanimity of the bloc’s 27 members, with Hungary seen as the main potential obstacle.
If accepted, EU officials expect formal accession talks with Kyiv to start next year. Such negotiations take years before candidates meet extensive legal and economic criteria to join. The bloc is also wary of taking in a country at war.
“Ukraine continues to face tremendous hardship and tragedy provoked by Russia’s war of aggression,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. “And yet, the Ukrainians are deeply reforming their country, even as they are fighting a war that is existential for them.”
Hailing a “successful day”, Zelensky told the Reuters NEXT conference in New York that his country had done a lot during the war to tackle corruption – a key criteria for joining the bloc – and pledged that the postwar-reconstruction of his country would be free from graft.
As well as the soldiers, our “reforms are also fighting with an old system” he said of his government’s efforts to clamp down on corruption. Prior to the war, Ukraine was ranked by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt countries in Europe.
The European Commission’s report on Wednesday showed that Kyiv met four out of seven conditions to start formal accession talks, though more were near completion. Von der Leyen said the Brussels-based Commission would reassess progress next March.
A top aide to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Budapest would not support Ukraine’s EU integration unless Kyiv changes its laws on minorities, in particular as regards education.
Still, advancing Western integration is a top priority for Ukraine at a time of growing fatigue with the war and concerns swirling over the future of vital U.S. military aid.
The Commission on Wednesday made a similar recommendation for Moldova, a small neighbour of Ukraine that is struggling with its own tensions with Moscow.
“Moldova is firmly on the path for EU membership and we will continue working relentlessly towards this goal,” the country’s president, Maia Sandu, said in welcoming the move.
Brussels further said Georgia should receive the status of a membership candidate once it meets outstanding conditions, including Tbilisi aligning with the EU sanctions against Russia for waging its war against Ukraine.
EU officials see the Georgian government as more inclined towards doing business with Moscow but they say Georgian society is strongly pro-European.
The Commission said the EU should also begin membership talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina once a long list of extensive conditions are met.
That is seen as a tall order as EU countries are split on Sarajevo with Austria, Slovenia and Croatia in favour of bringing it closer to the bloc but the Netherlands leading a camp highlighting democratic backsliding in Bosnia.
In 2013, Croatia was the last to join the EU – a bloc of 450 million people and one of the richest places in the world, though increasingly struggling to keep its international clout. In 2020, Britain was the first country to ever leave the EU, a major setback for European integration following World War Two.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine put enlargement back at the top of the EU’s political agenda as the geo-political rivalry between Moscow and the West erupted with a new force.
“Completing our Union is the call of history,” said von der Leyen. “Completing our Union also has a strong economic and geopolitical logic. Past enlargements have shown the enormous benefits both for the accession countries and the EU. We all win.”