BRUSSELS — The European Union’s executive branch recommended on Friday that Ukraine be granted candidate status in the country’s bid to become a member, the first formal step in a process that normally lasts longer than a decade.
Becoming part of the Union would moor the former Soviet state to the world’s biggest trading bloc. Beyond the economic benefits, Ukraine would also gain a bigger voice on the global stage if it succeeds in joining a giant union that includes Europe’s largest economies like Germany, France and Italy. The political stability of being anchored to a large group of countries also helps draw foreign investment.
The European Commission also recommended a similar status for Moldova — which applied for membership to the bloc soon after Ukraine, spurred by concerns about Russian aggression in the region — but not for neighboring Georgia, which was deemed not ready for E.U. candidacy.
The European Union’s offer of membership has been one of its greatest foreign policy tools in the post-Cold-War world, pushing aspiring countries to make difficult political and economic changes required to join. The prospect forced Bulgaria and Romania to try to tackle corruption and accelerated the arrest of war criminals in Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro.
Ukraine’s candidacy took on an air of inevitability on Wednesday, when the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Romania announced their support during a visit to Kyiv. And Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s president, opened Friday’s meeting of E.U. commissioners in Brussels wearing a blue shirt and a yellow blazer, Ukraine’s national colors.
Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War
Still, the ultimate decision about making Ukraine a candidate will be in the hands of European Union leaders meeting June 23 and 24 in Brussels to tackle the thorny question.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said the Commission’s recommendation would help his country’s efforts to stave off Russian aggression. “It’s the 1st step on the EU membership path that’ll certainly bring our Victory closer,” he wrote on Twitter.
In St. Petersburg, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said on Friday that his country does not oppose Ukraine joining the European Union, even though it has gone to war with Ukraine in large part over its desire to join the NATO military alliance. Mr. Putin said that, unlike NATO, the E.U. is “not a military organization,” and joining it is “the sovereign decision of any country.”
“We were always against military expansion into Ukrainian territory because it threatens our security,” Mr. Putin said. “But as for economic integration, please, for God’s sake, it’s their choice.”
Russia, in fact, opposed Ukraine’s trade agreement with the European Union that Kyiv was negotiating in 2013. Ukraine then backed away from the pending deal under Russian pressure, a move that sparked the country’s pro-Western uprising the following year.
The European Commission stressed that Ukraine’s and Moldova’s candidate statuses are tied to overhauls on the rule of law, justice and anti-corruption. The need to make difficult changes will be especially pronounced in Ukraine, a country that has struggled with corruption and will eventually have to grapple with the war’s aftermath.
“Starting accession negotiations is further down the line,” Oliver Varhelyi, the bloc’s top official for enlargement, told reporters. “Today it’s not about that. Once conditions are met, then we’ll have to come back to it and reflect.”
The steps that Ukraine is required to take include strengthening the fight against corruption and against oligarchs, legislation on the selection of judges to the country’s top court and protection of minorities.
The Commission said it would assess the progress at the end of this year, leaving the war-battered country less than seven months to introduce a number of complex and costly reforms.
Tess Felder contributed reporting from London.