European Commission Recommends Ukraine as Candidate for EU

The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said the Commission had recommend to give Ukraine candidate status to the European Union on Friday, June 17.

Von der Leyen, dressed in the yellow and blue colors of the Ukrainian flag, said that the recommendation was based on the understanding that Ukraine would carry out a number of important reforms.

She said Ukraine had already implement roughly 70 percent of the EU’s rules and standards, but that important work remained on issues such as anti-corruption, the rule of law, oligarchs, and fundamental rights.

Von der Leyen said the process was based on merit-based progress and depends entirely on Ukraine. Credit: European Commission via Storyful

Video transcript

- Good afternoon. Welcome to our post-College press conference on the opinions of the European Commission on the membership applications of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. I immediately give the floor to the President of the European Commission.

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: Thank you so much. A warm welcome. Good afternoon. Today, the College has adopted its opinions, the three opinions on the membership applications of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. We have adopted these opinions after very carefully assessing the merits of each of these applications. The merits on the basis, as you know, of the Copenhagen criteria and the Madrid criteria. You might also know that these are concerning the political criteria, the economic criteria, and the question whether the country, the applicant, has the capacity to thrive in our very competitive internal market.

Let me start with Ukraine. The Commission recommends to the Council, first, that Ukraine is given European perspective, and second, that Ukraine is given candidate status. This is, of course, on the understanding that the country will carry out a number of further important reforms.

Let me detail out a bit our recommendation. In the view of the commission, Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the country's aspiration and the country's determination to live up to European values and standards. Ukraine, before the war, had already embarked on its way towards the European Union. For eight years now, it had already been gradually moving closer to our union. As you know, we have the Association Agreement since 2016. And with that, Ukraine has already implemented roughly 70% of the EU acquis. That is the rules, the standards, and the norms. Ukraine is taking part in important EU programs, like, for example, the Horizon program or the Erasmus program.

Ukraine has a very robust parliamentary presidential democracy. It has a very well-functioning administration, public administration, that has kept and is keeping the country running during this war. We know that because we work very closely with the Ukrainian administration. We know that the decentralization reform that the country has adopted is a success, because we see the performance of the regions and of the municipalities, even under the stress test of this war now.

And the administration's modernization reform is ongoing. Ukraine has a very vibrant and active civil society. This is good. Ukraine has an electoral system that has proven to be fair and free, as considered by [? Udiem. ?] Ukraine has an education system that is well-developed. We know and admire the digital skills of this country, and the digital infrastructure that is in place. And if we look at the economy, of course, we have to look at the economy before the war. And there, Ukraine has shown a sound level of deficit of only 2%, and a public debt below 50%. This is good, too.

So Ukraine has already taken important steps on the path to becoming a fully functioning market economy. This is important because, of course, Ukraine has to be capable of integrating into the EU single market. You know that we are working on integrating Ukraine deeper into the single market. For example, in the transport sector, where we have the Transport Agreement, or we integrate the energy systems further. You might recall that even after the beginning of the war, the Ukraine electric grid has been coupled to the European Union's once all these steps are in a very good direction.

At the same time, we of course know that further work has to be done. On the rule of law, for example, Ukraine has come far. It has come far in setting up the necessary institutions for the judiciary to function effectively, and the necessary institutions on the vetting of prosecutors. The focus should now be on speeding up the selection of judges of the Constitutional Court, as well as the members of the High Council of Justice.

On anti-corruption, Ukraine also has come far in setting up the necessary anti-corruption bodies. So the focus should now be on the appointment of the new head of the anti-corruption prosecutors, and the new director of the anti-corruption investigation bureau. In other words, the anti-corruption bodies are in place. Now, they have to become fully operational.

On oligarchs, Ukraine has adopted a bold law against oligarchs, the de-oligarchization law. And in fact, it is the only country of the Eastern Partnership that has done so. This is good. Now here, too, it is on implementation. We want to see results on the ground.

On fundamental rights, Ukraine has achieved to comply with 80% of the recommendations of the Venice Commission. What remains to be done is the adoption of the law on national minorities.

So in sum, a lot has been achieved. But of course, important work remains. I have discussed all this with President Zelenskyy and Prime Minister Shmyhal when I was in Kyiv around about 10 days ago. And I got a very telling reply by President Zelenskyy. He said, you know, even if we would not apply for European membership, these are all reforms that are necessary and that are good for the country. And we would have to do them anyway, because it's for Ukrainian democracy.

Of course, we know that not everything can be achieved as long as the war rages in the country. But many of these issues can nevertheless already be addressed. So to conclude on Ukraine, we have one clear message. And that is, yes, Ukraine deserves European perspective. Yes, Ukraine should be welcomed as a candidate country. This is on the understanding that good work has been done, but important work also remains to be done.

The entire process is merits-based. So it goes by the book, and therefore progress depends entirely on Ukraine. It is Ukraine that has it in their hands. And what could be better to shape your own future?

Turning to Moldova, our assessment goes broadly into the same direction as for Ukraine. We therefore also recommend that council grants Moldova the European perspective and candidate status, on the understanding that the country will carry out a number of further important reforms.

In the recent past, Moldova has taken a decisive step towards reforms, with a clear mandate from its citizens. It is on a real pro-reform, anti-corruption, and European path for the first time since independence. Of course, Moldova still has a long way to go. Its economy and public administration, in particular, require major improvements. But provided that the country's leaders stay on course, we believe that the country has the potential to live up to the requirements.

On Georgia, Georgia shares the same aspirations and potential as Ukraine and Moldova. Its application has strengths. In particular, the market orientation of its economy with a strong private sector. To succeed, the country must now come together politically to design a clear path towards structural reform and the European Union, a path that concretely sets out the necessary reforms, brings on board civil society, and benefits from broad political support.

This is why we recommend to Council to grant the European perspective, and to come back and assess how Georgia meets the number of conditions before granting its candidate status.

So finally, to conclude, on these three opinions, we did a thorough assessment. And this is laid out in the now-public three opinions. This is a very solid basis of facts and evidence to move forward. And building on this basis of evidence is, of course, a historic and a political momentum. And we all know that Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective. We want them to live with us the European dream. Thank you so much for the moment.

- Thank you very much, Mrs. President. Commissioner, you now have the floor.

OLIVÉR VARHÉLYI: Thank you. Just to complement what the president has just explained to you, as you have seen, in the midst of these very turbulent times, three of our partner countries have decided to send a very clear message to us and to the world. Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia want to join the European Union. They have expressed very clearly and loudly their own will, which is that they consider the European Union and membership in the European Union to be the most important and most reliable tool for their own peace, stability, and prosperity long-term. Now, it is for Europe to show that this is a reality.

So it is obvious that in this new geopolitical context, Europe has also reassessed the importance of its own unity, and the importance of the enlargement policy. We have treated these applications very seriously, but not as business as usual. We have been working very hard, and we have done our utmost to deliver as fast as we can, and respond to the Council, which has asked the Commission very quickly after the applications were received to come up with an opinion.

Because this is the first step of any process, that the Commission prepares an opinion on the applicant countries. We have made a rigorous and robust assessment. You will see in the documents that we have been applying the exact same methodology as we have been doing in previous cases, and we are relying on the criteria that are well-established.

The so-called Copenhagen criteria, supplemented in Madrid, 1995, which are first of all political criteria, meaning how the country ensures democracy, the rule of law, protection of human rights, and minorities. The second criteria is the economic criteria, to assess whether there is a functioning market economy capable of resisting competitive pressures within the European Union. And third, the so-called acquis criteria, meaning the capability of applying our legislation, the EU law, as-is on the ground.

On the political criteria, I think the president has already explained everything to you, so I don't want to repeat that. And I think my task here would be to explain to you a bit this construction that we put forward, meaning European prospective candidate status with conditions, and conditions to obtain candidate status.

For Moldova, I think it is very clear what needs to be done. We need the public administration reform to go ahead, and to be finished. And we need a public financial management system, and reinforcement of the public procurement system. These are fundamental elements of any well-functioning public administration.

We need Moldova also to deliver on the judiciary, meaning to ensure the independence, integrity, efficiency, and accountability and transparency of the judiciary, through the establishment of asset verification and effective democratic oversight. Of course, we have appointments to be made in the Supreme Council registry and so on.

The third big area of delivery would be the fight against corruption, because we need proactive and efficient investigations. We need a credible track record to be established. The fourth is organized crime, where we need increased cooperation with the regional, with us, the European Union, and with our international partners, to see to it that we have asset recovery, especially after the bank fraud that we have seen in the country. And we need delivery on the priorities set out by the Financial Action Task Force, also known as FATF.

And finally, on fundamental rights, we need better involvement of the civil society, protection of human rights, particularly when it comes to vulnerable groups and the fight against violence against women.

For Georgia, we are setting out also a comprehensive list of priorities, on the basis of which we should be able to deliver the proposal for candidate status. On democracy, we would like to see the end of the political polarization that has characterized the country. And we need the cooperation of all political parties in the country, and the delivery of the agreement that was reached with the facilitation of the European Union. This also relates to judicial reform, because that agreement also covered that. And we need also progress on the fight against corruption, where the independence of the anti-corruption agency would have to be ensured.

Fourth, we need to step up the fight against organized crime. We need rigorous investigations, prosecutions, and the credible track record again here. And finally, on fundamental rights, we need to guarantee the freedom, and professional and pluralistic and independent media environment for the journalists in the country.

So in conclusion, I think today is the day when we are making a proposal. And we do hope that next week, the Council will follow fully our proposal. Thank you.

- Thank you very much. We will now go to your questions, and we'll go to [? Titilan. ?]

- Thank you very much for giving us the floor. Good morning, Madam President and Mr. Commissioner. It's a very emotional day for all of us. And I want to use this chance and congratulate my colleagues from Moldova and from Ukraine. I represent the country, and you know that the majority of Georgian people wants to be with you in this organization, and to be part of European family. And we hope that this day will come sooner than later.

Can you tell us more about timeframe? We just heard these conditions for Georgia. Is there a timeframe for fulfillment of these conditions? And also, what is your main message, Madam President, for Georgian people? They are now very, very carefully listening to you. What you will tell them about our European future.

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: Yes, thank you. Thank you very much. So first of all, it is a huge step forward for Georgia to get the European perspective. This is a big achievement. And the door is wide open. It is up to Georgia now to take the necessary steps to move forward. To come together, the whole country, on the political side, and to show very clearly that you want to get active.

And this also determines, of course, the timeframe. It's up to you. The sooner you deliver, the sooner there's progress. And therefore it is in the hands of Georgia to really speed up and be clear and move forward through the open door.

- Thank you very much. Mr. Reese?

- [SPEAKING UKRAINIAN] the national news agency of Ukraine. Commissioner, Madam President, as there are a lot of speculations around that decision, I mean, could you specify? Is that decision related to the fact that Ukraine now is in a war? Or it is just because it has its own merits to obtain that candidate status? And the second question, if I may. You have a positive decision both for Ukraine and Moldova. Does it mean that the two countries will be considered in the same basket, like it was for a while with Albania and North Macedonia? Thank you.

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: I think my answer on for your first question answers immediately also the second question. This whole process, that's very important, is merit-based. It's done by the books. They have to be. And if you look into the communications, they are very detailed about what needs to be done.

And therefore, Ukraine has achieved a lot. If you look at the progress in the last eight years, the reforms that have been done, the improvements that have been done, the work that has been done together with us shows that there has been really progress. So merits-based, Ukraine is now recommended, not only to have the European perspective, but also the candidate status.

And of course, we all know more work needs to be done. But there, too, it's detailed out. It's very clear. You know exactly what is necessary. And as I said, I think the country itself wants to do these reforms, because it benefits from these reforms. So completely merit-based, and each of the three applicants decides themselves whether they want to move forward and how fast they want to move forward.

- Thank you so much.

THOMAS GUTSCHKER: Thanks a lot. Thomas Gutschker, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. First two questions to the President. Just to clarify, when you say further improvements, reforms need to be made, I understand you to mean that they need to be made before accession negotiations can be opened up. Could you please clarify that? Or does it mean, need to be made to obtain full candidate status?

And then the second question, there has been a report from the European Court of Auditors last fall that had a devastating analysis of what they called grand corruption in Ukraine. And in fact, they were talking not about progress, but about the country moving backwards. That referred mainly to the timeframe between 2016 and 2019. So in your assessment, has Ukraine overcome all these shortfalls that had been analyzed in the report? And is the Commission able to measure that? Because that's the other point the Court made, that the Commission wasn't even able to measure progress.

And one question, if I may? Yes, very quickly to the Commissioner. There have been many rumors that the questionnaires in Ukraine have, in fact, more or less been filled out by EU officials, and not by the government itself. Could you please clarify that? Thanks.

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: So the recommendation is clear. The recommendation is European perspective and candidate status. And we understand that the countries will do further reforms before they can move on. And move on depends on how they perform. There is a very clear process in our methodology.

And the overall methodology has been reformed, I think, a year and a half ago, two years ago. And there, we got this dynamic into the methodology for all the countries that are applicants for European membership. That is, if you can move on faster with clusters that are summarized, but you can also fall back. So there is a reversibility in the overall process if you do not perform, but backslide. And this goes for all the countries that are applying for EU membership.

I think this is something very important and beautiful in the process itself, because it shows that it's the country itself that has it in its hand, whether they progress rapidly, or whether there is a stagnation, or whether there is a backsliding.

On the topic of corruption, it is a topic. It is an issue. We've always been working on it. And indeed, the people of Ukraine elected their government just because they wanted the fight against corruption. We have, of course, seen that over time, and mainly in the last years, there was progress in fighting corruption.

If you look, for example, at Transparency International, over the last six years, yes, Ukraine is starting from a low level. But what is important is the trajectory, and the trajectory is positive. So they are gaining ground on fighting corruption. That is important. You see also that, indeed, there was a dip in 2019, but then they progressed again. And you have other countries that in this table are backsliding and are losing ground on corruption.

One more point on corruption. What is so important is the digitalization of processes. Because the less you have person to person contacts, and the more you have digitized, the better you can fight corruption. And we have discussed that intensively when I was in Kyiv with President Zelensky and Prime Minister Shmyhal. Prime Minister Shmyhal has very interesting, far-reaching plans, where the digitalization of the country and the processes are concerned.

So there is awareness of the issue. And there should be and is awareness of the issue. But there is also intensive work that is being done. And this is just a criterion where you have to improve.

- Yes, on the questionnaires, all the questionnaires have been filled out by the countries, because they know best. Of course, we have been using data that we have at hand. In that sense, this was a new approach applied by the Commission, so that we are not asking replies to questions we already know the replies to.

The second element is, yes, of course, we have provided technical support for all three countries to be able to fill it out quickly and in an unambiguous way, so that we spare time, having no need for additional questions to be put. So it was a common effort. We have helped these countries, but they have been the ones filling it out.

- Thank you much. And we'll take a few questions from the interactive platform now. And first we go to Tanja Milevska.

TANJA MILEVSKA: Thank you. I'm Tanja Milevska from the Macedonia News Agency. I have a question on North Macedonia, obviously. First of all, I would like to know if the European Commission will make sure that the proposed negotiating framework will not be in violation of the EYK and the EU values, because it seems that some of the Bulgarian demands are contrary to the EU values. And to go back to Ukraine, when do you expect Ukraine and Moldova to start negotiations? And finally, why didn't you use this occasion to propose a candidate status for Bosnia?

- Thank you very much. Commissioner?

OLIVÉR VARHÉLYI: Thank you. First of all, I'm not aware of any negotiating framework. All I'm aware of is a complete deadlock in Sofia, which I'm not particularly happy about, since I've been spending every second Tuesday in the country, to no avail. It seems that internal politics are capable of measuring the credibility of the European Union. So at this stage, I don't think we can talk about any negotiating framework.

Second, when it comes to candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnia and Herzegovina is running its own accession process. It's a merit-based process, as also the President underlined. And it applies to each and every single candidate country. Bosnia-Herzegovina has to fulfill 14 priorities that have been laid out in our opinion, and which was confirmed by the European Council at that time. We're still waiting on the country to deliver on that. If we are to renegotiate conditions that have been clearly put forward, then we would be giving discounts on the enlargement process. And this is not something that we are doing.

- Thank you. I take another question from the platform. Philippe Regnier.

PHILIPPE REGNIER: [SPEAKING FRENCH]

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: Yeah, so the former is-- and I will repeat it for you-- is the case. So we propose candidate status. And we know that then we have to work on reforms that are laid out, as I said, on the understanding that these reforms will be done. Again, the whole accession process is a dynamic process, that can move forward, stall, or backwards at different speed. It's up to the country. And here, our expectations are very clear. You get the perspective, you get the candidate status, but we expect you to do these reforms that are detailed out.

And the second-- or the first question you asked me, well, the whole process shows how important the respect for the international law is. The international law that says very clearly that every country that is sovereign has the right to determine its own future, and to decide where to go and what to do.

And here, it is very clear that the European Union, actually a peace project, is the destination where Ukraine wants to go. And we encourage Ukraine to do the necessary steps. We are impressed by the fight of the Ukrainian people for their independence, for their sovereignty, for the integrity of their territory. They are fighting for freedom. And this is one of the universal rights, the basis of our international law that we all have to respect.

- Thank you. Yes, please. Please present yourself.

PIA GRIPENBERG: Yes, hello. Sorry. Pia Gripenberg, Swedish daily Dagens Nyhetter. Since we don't know how long this war in Ukraine it will go on, I wonder what kind of recommendations or in the process can be done during the war, and what do you think have to wait until it's a peace.

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: Yeah, I cannot detail out now every step. But an example, Ukraine is already working on the modernization reform that now has to be finished for its administration. This can be done during the war. And there are other steps that can be done.

There is one point that is partially difficult. For example, if you have a selection process for people to be appointed to certain offices, this might be difficult because if these people are either fighting at the front, or as refugees, for example, in European countries. So these are very practical reasons. But the parliament is functioning. The government is functioning. So a lot can be done and will be done already.

And there is a second point we should not forget. In the mid and long-term, we are looking at the reconstruction of the country. This is a different process. You know that we are working on a platform to channel all the different global initiatives to support Ukraine financially for the reconstruction. And there, we think it is absolutely the right moment to say investment and reforms. That's what Ukraine wants. So that these reforms also pay into the goal to join the European Union, that these reforms are done with the investments.

- Thank you very much. I go back to the platform. Laurence Norman.

LAURENCE NORMAN: Thanks a lot for taking. The questions for President Von der Leyen first. You said that it's up to the countries themselves as to the progress they make. But as we all know from North Macedonia and Albania, that isn't entirely the case. Is there a world that you could envisage in which Ukraine and Moldova can start their accession talks before the EU agrees to move ahead with accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania?

And for the Commissioner, what assurances can you give us that your home government will not play the role with Ukraine for the EU that it has done with NATO, and that Bulgaria is currently doing with North Macedonia, by blocking progress or slowing it down?

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: Yeah, thank you for your first question. Very clearly, first things first, we do a huge step today with this proposal of a European perspective and candidate status. And we have just laid out that there is work to be done. Let's do this job. Let's do the work successfully, and then move on to the next steps.

OLIVÉR VARHÉLYI: Yes. Well, if you have a question to Hungary, maybe you should ask them. That would be my first advice. The second is that to ensure that we have all the member states on board. The best way to do it is to ensure full credibility and full adherence to the criteria, and this is what we are doing in this case. Now, of course, we do hope that North Macedonia and Albania will have its first IGC as we speak, and we don't have to wait any more for internal political reasons of Bulgaria. And I'm very hopeful that we are talking about days, rather than months or years.

- Thank you very much. And the last question today goes to Virginie [? Malange. ?]

- [SPEAKING FRENCH]

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: Yeah, so we propose to grant the European perspective and the candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. And then we expect, and we have discussed with the countries, that certain reforms have to be fulfilled.

And again, it is a dynamic process. I really insist on that. So it's not a rigid process that has defined timelines or steps that, once done, can never be undone. It's a dynamic process. So we expect these reforms to be done. If so, then it's merits-based. Then there is a movement forward. As long as these reforms are not done, there is stagnation, so nothing moves forward. And sometimes, if you see we're speaking about other applicants, not these three, if you see backsliding, you also see that the accession process is moving backwards. It's in the hands of the applicants. It's merits-based.

Of course, we support as much as possible. Don't get me wrong, we support a lot financially. We support a lot with technical advice. But it's also the respect for the sovereignty of a country that they decide at what speed and in what form they move forward. Thank you so much.

- Commissioner.

OLIVÉR VARHÉLYI: Maybe I supplement on the technicalities. Because today, we are making the first decision in the whole accession process, meaning that we propose candidate status. Starting accession negotiations is further down the line. Today, it's not about that decision. Once conditions are met, then we will have to come back and reflect on it. Whether we have all the criteria met to make the next step, which is going to be the start of accession negotiations. But that is another set of decisions to be made. This is not for today.

- Thank you very much. This brings us to the end of this press conference. Stay tuned. There will be a technical briefing following to allow you to ask more detailed questions on the opinions and on the enlargement process. Thank you very much.

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