The European Commission has recommended that formal EU membership negotiations should begin with Ukraine and Moldova in a move its president, Ursula von der Leyen, described as a response to “the call of history”.
In a 1,200-page report on future enlargement of the 27-member bloc, the EU said talks should formally be launched once Kyiv satisfied remaining conditions related to stepping up the fight against corruption, adopting a law on lobbying in line with EU standards and strengthening national minority safeguards.
The report also recommended opening accession talks with Bosnia, but only if it met conditions in certain areas, and giving candidate status to Georgia, a step that would set it on the path for eventual accession.
Writing on Telegram in response, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian president, welcomed the long-awaited decision, which marks an important milestone on Kyiv’s road to integration and a geopolitical gambit for the west, as the country has been fighting against Russia’s invasion since February 2022.
“Today, the history of Ukraine and the whole of Europe has made the right step,” Zelenskiy said on Telegram. “Our country should be in the European Union,” he added.
The Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said the hope of a “European future for our children” had helped to get his country through “the most difficult time any European nation has faced in modern history”.
“Our fight and sacrifices are not in vain. Our transformation is recognised. Our dreams and hopes are coming true,” Kuleba wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
The commission’s decision, which has to be ratified by prime ministers at a summit in December, could eventually lead to the biggest expansion of the bloc since 2004, when 10 countries joined the EU, including Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states and Hungary.
Von der Leyen said: “Completing our union is the call of history. It is the natural horizon.” Membership of the EU was a “powerful lever” that would boost the economies and stability of the bloc, she added.
She said: “The neighbourhood, our neighbourhood, has to choose where they want to go. And the western Balkans, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine chose very clearly where they want to go.”
She added: “If you look into the report and you see the list of reforms, it shows determination, the steadfastness and the political will of the population” of those countries.
The progress report focused on reforms needed in 10 countries that have asked to join the EU, including the six Balkan states and Georgia.
The European Commission is also recommending a €6bn (£5.2bn) “accession fund” be set up to give incentives for reforms in the countries in the waiting room, with payments twice a year. If they stall on reforms, they will not benefit from the funds.
The recommendation to open negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova was “unconditional”, but both countries have been asked to complete reforms already under way before talks begin in earnest. The commission believes they can do this by March.
Ukraine, for example, is being asked to complete implementation on anti-corruption by enacting some laws already laid and making changes to the asset declaration systems now in place for public servants.
It also wants the body overseeing the asset declaration list to be given additional powers to revisit the list if new evidence emerges of a conflict of interest among politicians.
Moldova has been described as the “frontrunner” in terms of the speed of reforms required for full alignment with the EU, with officials describing its “great progress” so far.
It is being asked to complete reforms in three areas, including the staffing of anti-corruption offices and regulations in relation to cash payments in the public system.
“I’m very confident that Moldova will move on because [its] track record is impressive under very difficult circumstances,” said von der Leyen.
Asked why there were conditions set on negotiations opening with Bosnia, von der Leyen denied Brussels was in effect resisting accession. “We open the door very wide. We invite Bosnia and Herzegovina to go through the door,” she said.
Officials say if the EU leaders adopt the recommendations at their next summit on 15 December, then a negotiating team will be sent to Kyiv and Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, “that night”.
They will then start the long laborious job of assessing what laws need tweaking, re-writing or binning to incorporate the EU’s 40,000 pages of “acquis” of accumulated laws.
Ukraine and Moldova will also have to implement further reforms, described by an EU official as “leftovers” on anti-corruption and influence of oligarchs.