The European Union granted Ukraine, along with its neighbor Moldova, permission to become an official candidate for membership in the group on Friday, signaling a historic eastward shift in Europe’s attitude caused by Russia’s invasion.
Ukraine sought for EU membership barely four days after Russian forces crossed the border in February. Moldova and Georgia, two other ex-Soviet governments dealing with separatist territories held by Russian forces, followed four days later.
“Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the country’s aspiration and the country’s determination to live up to European values and standards,” said Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU’s executive Commission, in Brussels. She made the announcement while dressed in Ukrainian garb: a yellow jacket over a blue blouse.
The decision is anticipated to be endorsed by EU leaders at a conference next week. The presidents of the three largest countries, Germany, France, and Italy, paid a visit to Kyiv on Thursday, along with Romania’s president.
“Ukraine belongs to the European family,” German Foreign Minister Olaf Scholz stated after meeting President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The Commission recommended candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova, but not for Georgia, stating that other prerequisites must be met beforehand. Georgia, according to Von der Leyen, has a strong application but has to come together politically. A senior diplomat close to the process mentioned obstacles in changes in that country.
Ukraine and Moldova will still have to go through a long procedure to meet the criteria for membership, and there are more candidates in the wings. Membership is also not certain; discussions with Turkey, which has been a formal candidate since 1999, have been blocked for years.
However, opening the candidacy process, which would have appeared impossible only months ago, represents a paradigm change comparable to the decision to welcome ex-Communist nations of Eastern Europe in the 1990s.
“Precisely because of the bravery of the Ukrainians, Europe can create a new history of freedom, and finally remove the grey zone in Eastern Europe between the EU and Russia,” Zelenskiy stated in his nightly video message.
“Ukraine has come close to the EU, closer than any time since independence,” he remarked, hinting at unspecified “good news” on the way.
If accepted, Ukraine would be the EU’s biggest landlocked nation and the sixth most populated. All three candidates are much poorer than any current EU member, with per capita production around half that of Bulgaria, the worst.
All have a recent history of unpredictable politics, internal instability, entrenched organized crime, and unsolved wars with Russian-backed rebels declaring statehood over territory guarded by Moscow’s forces.