Brussels set to endorse Ukraine as a candidate for EU membership

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrives for a meeting of the College of Commissioners at EU headquarters in Brussels, June 17, 2022.

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Brussels is on Friday expected to recommend that Ukraine become a candidate for EU membership.

Decisions on Moldova and Georgia are also set to be announced. 

If the European Commission favours granting candidate status to any of the trio, leaders of EU countries will then have the final say at a summit in Brussels on 23-24 June. 

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 have also officially put in their requests to join the bloc.

Chișinău is also expected to be granted candidate status. Asked about the country’s prospects during a visit to Moldova on Wednesday, Macron, who holds the rotating presidency of the EU for another two weeks, said his “hope is that we can send a positive message to this request”.

He also emphasised that “Moldova should not be dissociated from Ukraine”, suggesting that the answer from the EU to both countries would be the same.

Why the EU is leaning toward yes

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. 

For Guntram Wolff, director of the Bruegel thinktank, the EU should grant the candidate status to Ukraine, arguing that “Ukraine belongs to Europe and deserves this dose of hope for the economic development that eventual EU membership would give”.

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.

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