BRUSSELS/KYIV, Ukraine—The European Union gave its blessing on Friday to Ukraine to become an official candidate to join the bloc, along with its neighbor Moldova, a historic eastward shift in Europe’s outlook brought about by Russia’s invasion.
Ukraine applied to join the EU just four days after Russian troops poured across its border in February. Four days later, so did Moldova and Georgia.
“Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the country’s aspiration and the country’s determination to live up to European values and standards,” the EU’s executive Commission head Ursula von der Leyen said in Brussels.
Leaders of EU countries are expected to endorse the decision at a summit next week. The leaders of the three biggest—Germany, France, and Italy—had signaled their solidarity on Thursday by visiting Kyiv, along with the president of Romania.
“Ukraine belongs to the European family,” Germany’s Olaf Scholz said after meeting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The Commission recommended candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova, but held off for Georgia, which it said must meet more conditions first. Von der Leyen said Georgia has a strong application but had to come together politically.
Ukraine and Moldova will still face a lengthy process to achieve the standards required for membership, and there are other candidates in the waiting room. Nor is membership guaranteed—talks have been stalled for years with Turkey, officially a candidate since 1999.
But launching the candidacy process, a move that would have seemed unthinkable just months ago, amounts to a shift on par with the decision in the 1990s to welcome the ex-Communist countries of Eastern Europe.
“Ukraine has come close to the EU, closer than any time since independence,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address, mentioning unspecified “good news” to come.
If admitted, Ukraine would be the EU’s largest country by area and its fifth most populous. All three hopefuls are far poorer than any existing EU members, with per capita output around half that of the poorest, Bulgaria.
All have recent histories of volatile politics, domestic unrest, entrenched organized crime, and unresolved conflicts with Russian-backed separatists proclaiming sovereignty over territory protected by Moscow’s troops.
President Vladimir Putin ordered his “special military operation” officially to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine. One of his main objectives was to halt the expansion of Western institutions which he called a threat to Russia.
Ukrainian officials said their troops were still holding out in Sievierodonetsk, site of the worst fighting of recent weeks, on the east bank of the Siverskyi Donets river. It was impossible to evacuate more than 500 civilians who are trapped inside a chemical plant, the regional governor claimed.
In the surrounding Donbass region, Ukrainian forces are mainly defending the river’s opposite bank.
In the south, Ukraine has mounted a counter-offensive, claiming to have made inroads into the biggest swath still held by Russia of the territory it seized in the invasion. There have been few reports from the frontline to confirm the situation in that area.
Ukraine claimed its forces had struck a Russian tugboat bringing soldiers, weapons, and ammunition to Russian-controlled Snake Island, a strategic Black Sea outpost.
Among the main concerns of world, leaders is Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, preventing exports from one of the world’s biggest sources of grain and threatening to cause a global food crisis.
French President Emmanuel Macron said he was skeptical that Moscow would agree to a United Nations proposal to open the ports.
“I already had talks a few weeks ago with President Putin, but he didn’t want to accept a U.N. resolution on this subject,” he said.
Russia blames the food crisis on Western sanctions, which it says harm its own grain exports, and Ukraine’s ports can’t be opened because of mines.
By Robin Emmott and Max Hunder
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