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Brussels backs Ukraine and Moldova as candidates for EU membership

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By Alice Tidey
Daily News 😵😄😣 Brussels backs Ukraine and Moldova as candidates for EU membership | Euronews
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a media conference at EU headquarters in Brussels, Friday, June 17, 2022.   -   Copyright  Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

The European Commission has backed Ukraine and Moldova to become candidates for EU membership.

But leaders of EU countries will then have the final say at a summit in Brussels on 23-24 June.

The announcement was welcomed by both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his Moldovan counterpart Maia Sandu.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said in the case of Ukraine that "we all know that Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective, we want them to live with us, the EU".

She praised the country's pre-war reforms to tackle corruption, curb the influence of oligarchs and strengthen the rights of minorities although she noted that "we want to see results on the ground".

She also flagged that the country enjoys a "very robust parliamentary, presidential democracy" and that its public administration has kept the country going despite the war. She also noted that "Ukraine has a very vibrant and active civil society".

"To conclude on Ukraine, we have one clear message and that is, yes Ukraine deserves European perspective, yes Ukraine should be welcome as a candidate country," she told reporters.

Candidate status for Moldova too, not Georgia

Moldova too has a solid foundation in place to reach the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the economic integration with the EU, the Commission concluded.

"Provided the country’s leaders stay on course, we believe that the country has the potential to live up to the requirements," von der Leyen said.

In the case of Georgia, however, the Commission said it should only be given "European perspective" but that it should only get candidate status once a number of priorities have been addressed.

"It is a huge step forward for Georgia to get the European perspective, this is a big achievement, and the door is wide open," the Commission head stressed. "It is up to Georgia now to take the necessary steps" which  "also determines, of course, the timeframe".

"The sooner you deliver, the sooner there is progress," von der Leyen said.

Watch the Commission's briefing in the video player below.

'Historic decision' for Ukraine

The candidate status, if approved by EU leaders at their Council summit next week, is more of a symbolic gesture. It does not entitle Ukraine or Moldova to more EU funds and does not also mean that accession negotiations will begin in earnest.

For that, both countries will need to continue with their reformist agenda with von der Leyen highlighting that accession is a "dynamic process" and that it does not have "a defined timeline."

"We expect these reforms to be done, if so, then it's merit-based, and then there's movement forward," she said.

Still, Zelenskyy took to Twitter to "commend the positive Commission's conclusion" which he described as a "historic decision".

"It's the first step on the EU membership path that'll certainly bring our victory closer," he also wrote, adding that he now expects "a positive result" at the European Council level when EU leaders meet next week. 

Sandu said the Commission's recommendation sends a "strong signal of support for Moldova and our citizens", vowing the country will be "working hard" to undertake the additional reforms required and that they now "count on EU Council support."

France, Germany, and Italy also backing Ukraine

It comes a day after leaders of the bloc's three biggest member states — France, Germany and Italy — made their long-awaited first trip to Kyiv and clearly stated their backing for Ukraine's bid.

France's Emmanuel Macron insisted that it would provide "a strong, quick, expected gesture of hope and clarity that we want to send to Ukraine and its people" while Germany's Olaf Scholz stated that "Ukraine belongs to the European family".

They stressed, however, that there would be conditions and that the war-torn country would not get preferential treatment over other counties that have been in negotiations to join the 27-country bloc for years.

Any country that wishes to join the EU must fulfil what is known as the "Copenhagen criteria" for a functioning market economy, a stable democracy and the rule of law, and the acceptance of all EU legislation, including of the euro. These usually require the candidate country to undertake a series of reforms. 

What's the background?

Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow said was partly motivated by the West seemingly encroaching on what it says is its sphere of influence, has backfired by leading to a flurry of countries looking to join the EU and the NATO military alliance.

Ukraine announced its wish to join the EU just four days after Russia launched its attack on 24 February. Kyiv filled out all the necessary and lengthy paperwork in a single month after receiving it on April 8 during a visit to the Ukrainian capital by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

Moldova and Georgia followed suit. 

EU leaders split

Ukraine can count on the Baltics, which have all unambiguously stated the country belongs in the EU. But some other countries particularly those with close ties to the Western Balkans may well push for strong conditions in order to assuage potential criticism of favouritism. 

Macron emphasised from Kyiv that he, along with Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, "will have to build together the unanimity of the 27" before the EU Council summit next week. 

According to Marie Dumoulin, director of the Wider Europe programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a thinktank, Denmark, Portugal and the Netherlands have raised concerns over Ukraine's candidacy.

"This had to do with issues with the rule of law and with the fight against corruption in Ukraine, which are real issues and which the Ukrainian government itself recognises that it has to work on," she told Euronews.

"There is, of course, this argument that the Ukrainian state is not ready."

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

Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi stressed to reporters on Thursday that "to ensure that we have all the member states on board, the best way to do it is to ensure full credibility and full adherence to the criteria and this is what we are doing in this case."

The Commission's opinion also stressed that nothing is set in stone and that "the accession process remains based on established criteria and conditions. 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."

Why the EU is leaning toward yes

For Guntram Wolff, director of the Bruegel thinktank, the candidate status could not only help Ukraine rebuild after the war and strengthen its institutions because it "can make 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 need to become easier and the EU needs to move away from unanimity in critical areas," he added. 

Camino Mortera-Martinez, head of the Brussels office of the Centre for European Reform (CER), another think tank, described enlargement as the "trickiest" issue facing the EU and noted that the Commission's early lobbying on member states for Ukraine membership "is working."

"Many think that Ukraine is not ready to join the EU yet, but they know the EU cannot afford to keep it in the waiting room for years, as it has done with other candidates like North Macedonia," she said in a note. 

She also tentatively backed Macron's idea of a European Political Community that would allow countries that wish to join or that have left the bloc to have closer ties to the union.

Breakaway regions could be a problem

One issue that could slow accession — already a very long process — for Ukraine and Moldova are the breakaway regions within their borders.

Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine declared their territories independent in the weeks before Russia launched its invasion and the so-called Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) are recognised only by Moscow. Crimea, and its illegal annexation by Russia in 2014, is also a sore point.

The pro-Russia territory of Transnistria in Moldova will likely prove a headache for the country as it seeks to become an EU member, a fact Sandu conceded during a joint press conference with Macron earlier this week.

"The Transnistrian region and the illegal presence of Russian troops in this area represent a weak point of vulnerability for the Republic of Moldova," she said.

An EU official stressed to reporters on Thursday that the two countries have "internationally recognised borders and recognised by the member states" and that the bloc has a "very firm position of non-recognition" of these breakaway regions.

But he noted that these will have to be addressed later in the accession process.