The European Union's executive arm on Friday recommended making Ukraine a candidate for EU membership, a morale booster and a first step on what is expected to be a long road for the war-torn country to join the 27-nation bloc.
If Ukrainians were under any illusion that the European Commission's positive assessment would mean fast-track EU membership, their hopes of quickly joining the club were dashed.
"Starting accession negotiations is further down the line," said Olivér Várhelyi, the EU Commissioner for the bloc's enlargement. "Once conditions are met, then we will have to come back and reflect on it ... This is not for today."
The European Commission delivered its proposal to award Ukraine candidate status after an analysis of answers to a detailed questionnaire. The Ukrainian government applied for EU membership days after Russia invaded the country on Feb. 24.
"Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective," commission President Ursula von der Leyen said — wearing clothes in the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag. "We want them to live, with us, the European dream."
The leaders of the bloc's existing members are scheduled to discuss the recommendation during a summit next week in Brussels. The European Commission's endorsement, while a strong sign of solidarity with Ukraine, is likely to take years or even decades to materialize into EU membership.
It's even possible that the candidate status will eventually be revoked if the reforms requested by the bloc to align with EU standards are not put in place.
Along with Ukraine, the European Commission also recommended giving neighboring Moldova EU candidate status. The commission also reviewed Georgia's application but said the Caucasus nation first needs to fulfill a number of conditions.
Adding new members requires unanimous approval from all EU member nations. They have expressed differing views on how quickly to add Ukraine to their ranks. Ukraine's bid received a boost when the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Romania visited the country Thursday and vowed to back its candidacy.
To be admitted, potential newcomers need to demonstrate that they meet standards on democratic principles and they must absorb about 80,000 pages of rules covering everything from trade and immigration to fertilizers and the rule of law.
Before Russia's invasion, the Commission repeatedly expressed concern in recent years about corruption in Ukraine and the need for deep political and economic reforms.
"Yes, Ukraine deserves a European perspective. It should be welcomed as a candidate country, on the understanding that important work remains to be done," von der Leyen said Friday. "The entire process is merits-based. It goes by the book and therefore, progress depends entirely on Ukraine."
Ukraine currently has an association agreement with the EU, aimed at opening Ukraine's markets and bringing it closer to Europe. It includes a far-reaching free trade pact. Von der Leyen said that due to the 2016 agreement, "Ukraine has already implemented roughly 70% of the EU rules, norms and standards."
"It is taking part in many important EU programs," she continued. "Ukraine is a robust parliamentary democracy. It has a well-functioning public administration that has kept the country running even during this war."
Von der Leyen said Kyiv should continue to make progress in the fields of rule of law and fighting corruption. She also cited the need to speed up the selection of high court judges.
Expediting Ukraine's application by declaring it an official candidate would challenge the EU's normal playbook for adding members. The degree to which Ukraine's request for a fast-track accession represents a change in the EU's standard operating procedure is evident from the experiences of other aspiring members.
Turkey, for example, applied for membership in 1987, received candidate status in 1999, and had to wait until 2005 to start talks for actual entry. Six Western Balkan countries — Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo — have been in the EU waiting line for decades, and only Serbia and Montenegro have the candidate status that was proposed for Ukraine.
At their June 23-24 summit, EU heads of state and government therefore face a delicate balancing act: signaling to Ukraine that the door is ajar while reassuring other aspiring members and some of the bloc's own citizens that they aren't showing favoritism to Kyiv.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Friday he was grateful to the Commission's recommendation to put his country and Moldova on the membership path. He called it "the first step on the EU membership path that'll certainly bring our victory closer."
Zelenskyy added that he "expected a positive result" from the EU summit in Brussels.