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Ukraine should get E.U. candidate status, European Commission recommends

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks Friday at a news conference in Brussels. (Yves Herman/Reuters)
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BRUSSELS — The European Commission has recommended that Ukraine become a candidate for European Union membership, a step that adds significant momentum to the country’s campaign to join the bloc.

In an opinion published Friday, the E.U. executive arm said Ukraine and fellow aspirant Moldova should be granted candidate status with conditions that they improve their judiciaries and other elements of their governments.

“Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the country’s aspiration and commitment to live up to European values and standards,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a news conference, wearing a yellow jacket and blue blouse in clear reference to the Ukrainian flag. Despite the war, “we have applied the commission’s rigorous standards in assessing these membership applications,” she added.

The recommendation, which comes a day after the leaders of Germany, France and Italy expressed support, does not confer candidate status — the first step on the path to membership — but bolsters the cause of the Eastern European countries heading into a European Council summit on the issue next week. For the cases to move forward, all 27 member states must agree. And even then, full membership for Ukraine and Moldova could be many years away.

France, Germany, Italy back Ukraine’s E.U. candidacy in first wartime trip to Kyiv

But backing from the commission highlights a new sense of urgency over the need for Europe to support Ukraine as it is hammered by Russian forces in its east, as well as a growing desire to send a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin about Europe’s future.

“Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective,” von der Leyen tweeted. “We want them to live with us the European dream.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the “historic decision” and said the “positive” first step on his country’s E.U. membership path would bring Ukraine’s “victory closer.” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also hailed the decision, calling it “vivid proof of European leadership and a huge boost for Ukraine’s further transformations.” Both said they expected an endorsement at next week’s summit.

But the commission’s recommendation falls short of what Ukraine has lobbied for. Ukrainian officials have insisted that their country deserves fast-track candidate status without conditions. “We are not playing the game of promises,” Olha Stefanishyna, a deputy prime minister, said during a visit to Brussels last week.

Von der Leyen said Friday that Ukraine had been “gradually moving closer to the union” for eight years and had implemented about 70 percent of E.U. rules and norms. “Ukraine is a robust parliamentary democracy,” she added, with a “sound” economy.

But the commission listed six steps it wants to see Ukraine take. Among them: implementing laws to ensure the selection of qualified judges and to limit the influence of oligarchs. It also asked that Ukraine improve its track record on investigations, prosecutions and convictions for corruption.

Some of that would present a challenge as long as the war continues.

“The accession process remains based on established criteria and conditions," the commission said in a memo. “This allows any country in the process to progress based on own merits but also means that steps towards the EU can be reversed if the underlying conditions are not met anymore.”

Fellow Eastern European nation Georgia will have to wait, with greater conditions placed on it, von der Leyen told reporters.

France, Germany, Italy back Ukraine’s E.U. candidacy in first wartime trip to Kyiv

In Moscow, spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday that the Kremlin would be monitoring Ukraine’s E.U. candidacy prospects.

“This would certainly require our close attention, because we all know how discussions on the defense aspects of the E.U.’s security have intensified in Europe,” he said, according to Russia’s Tass new agency.

Since Russia launched its invasion in February, Zelensky has pleaded with E.U. officials and member countries for Ukraine to be fast-tracked in.

E.U. officials and some leaders have voiced support during visits to Kyiv, saying that Ukraine is a member of the “European family” and that its future lies with the bloc. But their enthusiasm for the cause — and interest in posing for pictures with Zelensky — has often seemed at odds with where E.U. countries actually stand on the question of accession.

Through months of war, E.U. leaders have tried to temper Ukrainian expectations, stressing that membership could be decades away. In private conversations, many E.U. diplomats have expressed concerns about the country’s readiness.

But in recent weeks, as the war has entered a new and brutal phase, the momentum has shifted.

Ukrainian leaders and diplomats have toured European capitals to make the case for candidacy. Von der Leyen made another trip to Kyiv. Then came words of support from the leaders of Europe’s three largest economies.

In a visit with Zelensky on Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi cast this as a historic moment for Ukraine and for the E.U.

Draghi said Europe was at a turning point in its history. “Every day,” he said, “the Ukrainian people are defending the values of democracy and liberty that are the pillars of the European project, of our project.”

Scholz said he had come with the message that Ukraine “belongs to the European family.” Macron offered reassurance: “Ukraine can count on us.”

E.U. leaders happy to pose with Zelensky, hesitant on Ukraine membership

In Brussels, E.U. diplomats increasingly see support for Ukraine and other countries bordering Russia as a signal to Putin. Putin has asserted that Ukraine is not a real country and is seeking to bring it — and others — forcibly into the Russian sphere of influence. However, E.U. membership for Ukraine and Moldova defies Putin’s ambitions.

The question is whether all E.U. members states are, in fact, willing to back Ukraine’s E.U. ambitions.

There has long been strong support for Ukraine’s candidacy among the Baltic states and other Eastern European countries. The Netherlands, Denmark and Portugal are among those that remain skeptical — although no country has firmly declared a closed door to Ukraine.

Opposition to Ukrainian candidacy tends to focus on readiness — particularly given that the country is still at war — and the fact that other countries are ahead in line. A prospective member’s entire body of laws must be brought into compliance with standards set by Brussels. Several would-be members have been in limbo for years now.

Heading into next week’s summit, debate is likely to center on the conditions for the countries seeking candidate status, as well as on the question of how to revive stalled accessions talks elsewhere.

Although much debate is expected, some E.U. officials appear hopeful. The E.U. ambassador to Ukraine tweeted Friday that as he waited for the commission’s recommendation, he could not “help recalling a similarly beautiful summer day 25 years ago when the Commission opened my native Estonia’s E.U. path.”

Back then, there was “the same positive anxiety,” Matti Maasikas wrote. There was also “the same feeling of history in the air.”

Suliman reported from London. Amar Nadhir in Bucharest, Romania, contributed to this report.

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