Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hailed the European Union’s decision to grant his country candidate status Friday, a key milestone in joining the bloc. Moldova was also granted accession candidate status.
EU officials described the move as historic but cautioned that both countries will have to make tough reforms before they become full members.
In a joint televised message to the Ukrainian people, Zelenskyy, flanked by the prime minister and the speaker of parliament, compared the EU decision to other historic moments in Ukraine’s history and said the process was irreversible.
“Today, Ukraine is fighting for its freedom and this war began just when Ukraine declared its right to freedom, to choosing its own future,” Zelenskyy said. “We saw [that future] in the European Union.”
Speaker of the Ukrainian parliament Ruslan Stefanchuk called the decision a powerful political message. “It will be heard by soldiers in the trenches, every family that was forced to flee the war abroad, everyone who helps bring our victory closer,” he said.
EU leaders cautioned that the road to full membership for Ukraine and Moldova would not be easy.
“The countries all have to do homework before moving to the next stage of the accession process,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen after the decision, referring to political and governmental reforms required before continuing the process.
On Thursday, von der Leyen expressed confidence that Ukraine and Moldova would “move as swiftly as possible and work as hard as possible to implement the necessary reforms, not just because they are required to move ahead in the European accession path, but, first and foremost, because these reforms are good for the countries.”
Those reforms will be difficult and will take time, says analyst Andi Hoxhaj, a fellow in European Union law at Britain’s University of Warwick.
“It’s about strengthening the rule of law and the judicial system. In addition, they would like to see a track record of applying an anti-oligarch law, meaning that they want to root out corruption as well as strengthen independent institutions,” Hoxhaj told VOA. “That will be a really challenging aspect.”
For now, Ukraine is focused on repelling Russia’s invasion in the east. The outcome of war will likely also determine the EU’s verdict on Ukrainian membership.
“Will they be able to allow for a big country like Ukraine in, which still would have a lot of problems when it comes to its borders?” Hoxhaj said.
Other former Soviet states are eyeing EU membership. Georgia’s hopes of joining Ukraine and Moldova were dashed as the EU demanded further reforms before granting the country candidacy status. Instead, the bloc said it formally recognized Georgia’s “European perspective.”
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili nevertheless said it was an incredibly historic step. “We’re ready to work with determination over the next months to reach the candidate status,” Zourabichvili said.
North Macedonia has been a candidate for 17 years but its progress is being blocked by Bulgaria in a dispute over ethnicity and language. The feud is also blocking Albania’s hopes of progressing toward EU accession.
Bulgarian lawmakers voted Friday to end its veto, but with certain conditions attached, which could yet be rejected by North Macedonia or the EU.
Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo also want to join the EU, but political crises have prevented Brussels from offering candidacy. Arton Demhasaj, the head of Kosovo’s Wake Up anti-corruption watchdog, said the EU’s position is short-sighted.
“If countries who aspire to join EU face delays, they will re-orientate their policies and then we will have an increase of Russian and Chinese influence in the western Balkans and this will create problems within the E.U. itself,” Demhasaj told Reuters.
Hoxhaj of Warick University agrees.
“Bosnia should have been offered a candidate status a long time ago, as well as Kosovo, because it’s preventing them from moving forward,” Hoxhaj said. “But it’s also allowing Russia to have a kind of influence in the Western Balkans, especially in Serbia as well as in Bosnia.”
Russia said Ukraine’s EU candidacy would not pose a threat but Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the West of seeking war.
“When World War II was about to start, Hitler gathered most of the European countries under his banner. Now the EU and NATO are also gathering the same modern coalition for the fight and, by and large, for war with the Russian Federation,” Lavrov said Friday during a visit to Azerbaijan.
NATO and the EU say they do not seek war with Russia and accuse Moscow of upending decades of peace in Europe with its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.