BRUSSELS — The European Union's executive arm on Friday recommended making Ukraine a candidate for EU membership, a first step on what was expected to be a long road for the war-torn country to join the 27-nation bloc.
The European Commission delivered its proposal to award Ukraine candidate status after a fast-tracked analysis of answers to a questionnaire. The Ukrainian government applied for EU membership less than a week after Russia invaded the country.
"Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective," commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. "We want them to live with us, the European dream."
The leaders of the bloc's existing members are scheduled to discuss the recommendation during a summit next week in Brussels. The European Commission's endorsement, while a strong sign of solidarity with Ukraine, is likely to take years or even decades to materialize into EU membership.
Along with Ukraine, the European Commission also recommended giving neighboring Moldova EU candidate status. The commission also reviewed Georgia's application but said the Caucasus nation first needs to fulfill a number of conditions.
Adding new members requires unanimous approval from all existing EU member nations. They have expressed differing views on how quickly to add Ukraine to their ranks. Ukraine's bid received a boost when the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Romania visited the country Thursday and vowed to back its candidacy.
To be admitted, potential newcomers need to demonstrate that they meet EU standards on democratic principles and they must absorb about 80,000 pages of rules covering everything from trade and immigration to fertilizer and the rule of law.
Before Russia's war in Ukraine, the European Commission repeatedly expressed concern in recent years about corruption in Ukraine and the need for deep political and economic reforms.
"Yes, Ukraine deserves a European perspective. It should be welcomed as a candidate country, on the understanding that important work remains to be done," von der Leyen said Friday. "The entire process is merits-based. It goes by the book and therefore, progress depends entirely on Ukraine."
Ukraine currently has has an association agreement with the EU, which is aimed at opening Ukraine's markets and bringing it closer to Europe. It includes a far-reaching free trade pact. Von der Leyen said that due to the 2016 agreement, "Ukraine has already implemented roughly 70% of the EU rules, norms and standards."
"It is taking part in many important EU programs," she continued. "Ukraine is a robust parliamentary democracy. It has a well-functioning public administration that has kept the country running even during this war."
Von der Leyen said the country should continue to make progress in the fields of rule of law and fighting corruption. She also cited the need to speed up the selection of high court judges.
Expediting Ukraine's application by declaring it an official candidate would challenge the EU's normal playbook for adding members. The degree to which Ukraine's request for a fast-track accession represents a change in the EU's standard operating procedure is evident from the experiences of other aspiring members.
Turkey, for example, applied for membership in 1987, received candidate status in 1999, and had to wait until 2005 to start talks for actual entry. Six so-called Western Balkan countries — Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo — have been in the EU waiting line for decades, and only Serbia and Montenegro have the candidate status that was proposed for Ukraine.
At their June 23 summit, EU heads of state and government therefore face a delicate balancing act: signaling to Ukraine that the door is ajar while reassuring other aspiring members and some of the bloc's own citizens that they aren't showing favoritism to Kyiv.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Friday he was grateful to the European Commission's recommendation to put his country and Moldova on the membership path. He called it "the first step on the E.U. membership path that'll certainly bring our victory closer."
Zelenskyy added that he "expected a positive result" from the EU summit in Brussels.
Earlier Friday, Zelenskyy said it was in all of Europe's interest to see that Moscow is defeated in his country.
Speaking at an annual discussion forum in North Macedonia, Zelenskyy said that Russian's actions even before the war have "challenged every nation on the continent, every region of Europe."
"Today, there is not a single country left in Europe that would not have suffered from at least one of the many manifestations of Russian anti-European policies," he said.
Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade.