By Robin Emmott and Marine Strauss
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -The European Union’s executive recommended on Friday that Ukraine and Moldova become candidates for membership, a milestone in their potential path from ex-Soviet republics to developed economies in the world’s largest trading bloc.
If the European Commission’s decision is ratified as expected next week at a summit, it will be a morale boost for Kyiv and further Western snub for Russian President Vladimir Putin after his invasion of Ukraine in February.
The path to actual membership of the 27-nation bloc for Ukraine and Moldova may take years as it needs reforms to conform with democratic and anti-corruption standards.
“Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective. We want them to live with us the European dream,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference.In keeping with Western leaders’ solidarity, she wore Ukraine’s national colours of a yellow blazer and blue shirt.
While some EU countries have reservations about enlarging the bloc, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s ambition won the backing of France, Germany, Italy and Romania on Thursday.
“Ukraine deserves this positive development. Ukrainian values are European values … Ukrainian democratic habits are still strong,” Zelenskiy said in a video address.
“Our rapprochement with the European Union is not only positive for us. This is the largest contribution to the future of Europe in many years.”
Ukraine already has a free trade pact with the EU but applied to join days after Russia’s invasion.
Moscow says its “special military operation” was partly necessitated by Western encroachment into what it characterises as its rightful geographical sphere of influence.
“There are various transformations that we are observing in the most careful way,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said of the EU move.
In their first visit to Kyiv since Russia invaded, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Olaf Scholz, Italy’s Mario Draghi and Romania’s Klaus Iohannis said Ukraine belonged in the “European family”.
CONDITIONS FOR GEORGIA
Since Ukraine and Moldova won independence in 1991, pro-Russian and pro-EU politicians have vied for control. Ukraine has sought EU candidate status since 2014 when protests in Kyiv toppled an unpopular pro-Russian president.
Russia also has troops in Transnistria, a breakaway, Russian-speaking province along Moldova’s eastern side.
The Commission put conditions on Georgia’s aspiration for membership candidacy due to a domestic political crisis.
Russia fought a brief war with Georgia in 2008 and maintains a military presence in two disputed regions of the country.
The United States accuses Russia of seeking to check all three countries’ European ambitions. Moscow denies this.
Putin played down the EU issue on Friday, saying: “We have nothing against it. It is not a military bloc. It’s the right of any country to join economic union.”
For the EU, the path towards membership requires reforms tackling endemic corruption in Ukraine. Von der Leyen singled out corruption during a June 11 visit to Kyiv.
According to watchdog Transparency International, Ukraine is perceived as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, ranked 122 out of 180 states.
EU enlargement as a policy has stalled since 2018. Member states cannot agree whether to admit other official candidates – Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey.
One senior eastern European diplomat was also wary of France’s public support for Ukraine ahead of the EU summit on June 23/24, where leaders must endorse the Commission plan.
“I’d rather wait to see what happens at (the summit) to see it on paper and how they formulate it. EU decisions on candidate status can be taken in very different forms so I think actions and results are more important than public statements,” the diplomat said.
(Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Brussels, Kevin Liffey in London, John Irish in Paris and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; editing by Andrew Heavens, Philippa Fletcher, Andrew Cawthorne and Alex Richardson)