Ukraine E.U. candidate status likely at European Council summit

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BRUSSELS — EU leaders meeting Thursday are expected to grant Ukraine candidate status, a symbolic win for Kyiv amid the war with Russia and another sign of how the conflict is transforming the world order.

Candidate status does not confer membership, which could still be decades away. Since all 27-members must agree to the move, surprise objections are still possible. But Ukrainian and EU diplomats believe Thursday will mark a historic step for the bloc — and send an important signal to Russia.

Heads of state and government meeting in Brussels for a two-day European Council summit will back candidacy for Ukraine and Moldova, but will ask both countries to meet certain conditions before accession talks start, according to a draft of the council’s conclusions obtained by The Washington post. The European Parliament on Thursday voted in support of the move.

EU leaders are also expected to support candidacy for Georgia, but only after conditions are met, according to the draft conclusions.

Russia falsely claims that Ukraine is not a real country and wants to bring it into Russia’s sphere of influence by force. A pathway to membership in the European Union sends the message that Ukraine is a very real country with a future of its choosing, said Vsevolod Chentsov, the head of Ukraine’s mission to the EU

For Ukrainians worn out by months of fighting, EU candidate status is a “gesture of trust,” Chentsov said, and a sign that “the EU believes Ukraine can do this.”

Just months ago, the idea of ​​candidate status for Ukraine was seen as a near impossibility.

Ukraine has long wanted to join the EU Days into the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded for an expedited path to membership, casting candidacy as a matter of survival. While Baltic states and other eastern European countries backed the idea, many member states pushed back.

Through the first months of the war, EU officials and some leaders talked about Ukraine’s “European future,” but in private conversations, many EU diplomats remained skeptical, saying it was unfair on casting doubt promises to make false readiness and asking why Ukraine should jump the EU line. The Netherlands, Denmark and Portugal were among the holdouts.

Through the spring, some leaders appeared happy to pose with Zelensky, but hesitant on Ukrainian candidacy. “None of the 27 would say right in the face of the president ‘no,’ but what is happening behind the scenes is clear willingness to put obstacles into the process,” Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine, told The Post on a June 9 visit to Brussels.

Zelensky pressed EU leaders to do more. Granting Ukraine candidate status would “prove that words about the longing of the Ukrainian people to be a part of the European family are not just Ukrainian words,” he said in a June 10 speech. The next day, von der Leyen made a surprise visit to Kyiv to finalize the commission’s assessment on candidacy.

As von der Leyen continued to tout Ukraine’s readiness, diplomats toured European capitals to keep the pressure on Ukrainian. Some holdouts started to downplay their previous skepticism, wary of being the last one standing in Ukraine’s way.

Last week, the leaders of Germany, France and Italy visited Kyiv and voiced support for Ukrainian candidacy. The next day the European Commission recommended candidate status for Ukraine, adding to the momentum. By the beginning of this week, EU diplomats were calling Ukraine’s candidacy a “done deal” heading into the summit.

But the same diplomats caution that there is a very long road ahead. The European Commission last week laid out six post-candidacy steps for Ukraine to meet before it can move forward. Among them: implementing laws to ensure the selection of qualified judges; limiting the influence of oligarchs; and improving its track record on investigations, prosecutions and convictions for corruption.

With fighting raging in Ukraine’s east, Ukrainian officials acknowledge that it will be difficult to proceed. “Inevitably there will be issues that should be tackled after the shooting stops,” Chentsov said.

The challenges are not limited to Ukraine, or Ukraine’s candidacy. Though EU nations decided to create a path to membership for three of Russia’s neighbors, appetite for enlargement remains modest. Member states, having made a symbolic gesture, may find ways to slow things down.

Turkey applied in 1987 and technically remains a candidate. Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia have all been in membership talks with the European Union for years.

If it joined today, Ukraine would become the fifth-most-populous EU nation, and also by far the poorest, drawing subsidies from the rest of the bloc. Ukraine’s per capita gross domestic product last year was $4,872, while the next poorest EU country, Bulgaria, stood at $11,683, according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund.

Some members states, particularly in western Europe, remain concerned that a new, large member state could further complicate EU decision-making. Some believe the EU must reform its rules before it accepts new members, which could significantly extend the timeline.

EU leaders will meet again Friday to discuss the impact of Russia’s war on food supplies, the economy and other issues. World leaders, including President Biden, will also meet in Madrid next week for a NATO summit focused on the war in Ukraine and the future of the alliance.

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