A Ukrainian official overseeing the country’s push to join the European Union said Thursday that she’s “100%” certain all 27 EU nations will approve Ukraine's EU candidacy during a summit this week.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed similar optimism, calling it a “crucial moment” for Ukraine. Ukraine’s membership bid is the top order of business for EU leaders meeting in Brussels.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Olha Stefanishyna said the decision could come as soon as Friday, when the leaders' summit starts.
Stefanishyna said the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark had been sceptical about starting accession talks with Ukraine while it is fighting Russia’s invasion but are now supportive. Asked how confident she was that Ukraine would be accepted as an EU candidate, she said: “The day before the summit starts, I can say 100%.”
The EU’s executive arm threw its weight behind Ukraine’s candidacy last week. Stefanishyna described the European Commission's endorsement as “a game-changer” that had taken the ground out from under “the legs of those most hesitating."
EU candidate status, which can be granted only if the existing member countries agree unanimously, is the first step toward membership. It does not provide any security guarantees or an automatic right to join the bloc.
Ukraine's full membership will depend on whether the war-torn country can satisfy political and economic conditions. Potential newcomers need to demonstrate that they meet standards on democratic principles and must absorb 80,000 pages of rules covering everything from trade and immigration to fertilisers and the rule of law.
Stefanishyna told the AP that she think Ukraine could be an EU member within years, not the decades that some European officials have forecast.
“We’re already very much integrated in the European Union,” she said. “We want to be a strong and competitive member state, so it may take from two to 10 years.”
To help candidates, the bloc can provide technical and financial assistance. European officials have said that Ukraine has already implemented about 70% of the EU rules, norms and standards, but have also pointed to corruption and the need for deep political and economic reforms.
In a virtual talk to Canadian university students on Wednesday, Zelensky described the Brussels summit as “two decisive days” that he, like Stefanishyna, thinks will result in approval of Ukraine's EU candidacy.
“That is a very crucial moment for us, for some people in my team are saying this is like going into the light from the darkness," the Ukrainian president said through an interpreter. "In terms of our army and society, this is a big motivator, a big motivational factor for the unity and victory of the Ukrainian people.”
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said he spoke with Zelensky on Thursday and guaranteed him that Belgium would support Ukraine’s candidate status.
“Considerable efforts will be needed, especially in the fight against corruption and the establishment of an effective rule of law," De Cross said. "But I am convinced that it is precisely the (post-war) reconstruction of Ukraine that will provide opportunities to take important steps forward.”
Zelensky said he spoke with a total of 11 EU leaders Thursday, following calls with nine the day before, in another indication of how important EU candidacy is for Ukraine.