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Ukraine just took its first real step toward joining the EU

June 17, 2022, 12:15 PM UTC

The European Commission recommended that Ukraine be granted candidate status in a symbolic step on the long path to become members of the European Union, commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Friday.

The EU’s executive arm approved it with conditions that the pair will have to meet in the future on the rule of law, justice and anti-corruption. The commission also recommended that Moldova and Georgia receive candidate status, with the latter only after it meets specific additional conditions.

“We have one clear message and that is, yes, Ukraine deserves European perspective. Yes, Ukraine should be welcomed as a candidate country,” von der Leyen said at a news conference. “Important work also remains to be done. The entire process is merits-based. It goes by the book.”

The recommendation is particularly significant for Ukraine, which has invested so much of its political future on a closer relationship with Europe as it seeks moral support in countering Russian aggression.

“Ukraine is a European state which has given ample proof of its adherence to the values on which the European Union is founded,” the recommendation says. “The commission, therefore, recommends that Ukraine be granted candidate status” on the understanding that it takes a number of specific steps. 

There’s no existing fast-track path to speed up the arduous membership process, which can normally last more than a decade. Croatia was the last country to join the bloc and its application process lasted 10 years before it was formally accepted in 2013. The final decision to grant the status will have to be approved by all 27 member states. 

Germany’s Olaf Scholz, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s Mario Draghi on Thursday boosted Ukraine’s prospects when they warmly endorsed the membership bid on a visit to Kyiv, reversing earlier hesitation in Paris and Berlin to accelerate the process. They were joined by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis in the highest-profile delegation to visit Ukraine since Russia attacked at the end of February. 

The bloc’s leaders are set to discuss the matter in Brussels on June 23-24. Backing by member states is not a done deal as some governments, including Denmark and the Netherlands, have previously expressed reservations to granting the status. But with the bloc’s biggest members now on board, it will be difficult for others to block the decision.

The steps that Kyiv will need to take, according to an EU document seen by Bloomberg:

  • implement legislation on a selection procedure for judges of the Constitutional Court
  • finalize integrity vetting of candidates for various judicial councils
  • strengthen the fight against corruption, including via the appointment of a new head of the Specialised Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office
  • ensure that anti-money laundering legislation is in compliance with the standards of the Financial Action Task Force
  • implement anti-oligarch legislation
  • tackle the influence of vested interests by adopting a new media law aligned with EU media directives
  • finalize reforms of the legal framework for national minorities

The commission plans to monitor Ukraine’s progress in fulfilling these conditions and will report on them by the end of the year, according to the document.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy formally applied to join the EU at the end of February and von der Leyen delivered a membership questionnaire to the Ukrainian president when she visited Kyiv in April. She returned last weekend to Kyiv to discuss the membership recommendation.

Ukraine featured 122nd among 180 countries in last year’s ranking by the watchdog Transparency International. Ukrainians took to the streets twice, in 2004 and in 2014, to try to force the government to root out corruption. Support among Ukrainians to join the EU jumped to 91% in a March survey by Rating Group, up from 61% in December.

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