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Brussels' Decision To Open Up The EU To Ukraine, Moldova, And Georgia Is Symbolic, But Also Historic

The flags of Ukraine and the European Union hang together outside the European Parliament in Brussels.

Both the words "historic" and "symbolic" are appropriate when considering the June 17 decision by the European Commission to recommend that Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia be given a "European perspective" -- in other words, announcing for the first time ever that the trio of countries can become European Union members in the future.

With Ukraine and Moldova, the commission went even further, recommending that the two countries be granted European Union candidate status, a first step in the long process of accession.

The decision was "historic" because -- before Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, spurring a war that has killed tens of thousands of people and devastated towns and cities -- this was seen as a political impossibility.

Four months ago, you would have been laughed at in Brussels' corridors of power if you suggested that the European Commission would even draft opinions on these three countries, let alone offer two of them candidate status.

The commission's decision was also highly symbolic. It doesn't mean anything concretely, nor will it immediately change the situation on the ground in any of the countries, most crucially in war-torn Ukraine. Bombs will not cease raining down on the Donbas. In all three countries, an untold amount of difficult political and economic reforms lay ahead, and corruption is still pervasive as ever.

Notably, Brussels has separated the three former members of the Soviet Union, splitting them into two distinct groups. The European Commission has recommended that Ukraine and Moldova be granted candidate status and then fulfill certain conditions before moving along their respective accession paths. But for Georgia, conditions must first be met before its candidate status can even be considered.

While the EU is impressed by Ukraine's courage and resilience in the face of war and Moldova's reform-minded government, there are concerns about what is perceived as Tbilisi's "political backsliding" in recent years.

It was telling that the commission's first condition for Georgia was that the country address its political polarization, ahead of other conditions such as ensuring a "fully and truly independent judiciary" and undertaking "stronger efforts to guarantee a free, professional, pluralistic, and independent media environment."

These are long-standing complaints from Brussels that, thus far, the South Caucasus country has struggled to address.

Georgia will therefore be placed at the back of the queue of EU hopefuls along with Bosnia-Herzegovina, which -- due to its complicated political setup -- is struggling to meet the 14 recommendations set by Brussels three years ago to go from being a potential candidate country to being an actual candidate. (In addition to Ukraine and Moldova, the other official candidates to join the EU are North Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, Serbia, and Turkey.)

Most importantly, it is worth remembering that the commission's recommendation is still just that: a recommendation. The real decision will be taken next week at a Brussels summit on June 23-24, when all 27 EU member states have to unanimously agree for the recommendation to be approved.

And while it now appears that most, if not all, are onboard to grant them candidate status, the harsh truth remains that EU enlargement just isn't very popular. Less than one year ago, some EU members were even questioning whether the word "enlargement" should be used when discussing the candidates in the Western Balkans.

And even when candidate status is offered, the process is long and slow. Take Montenegro. A smaller and richer country than both Moldova and Ukraine and with no frozen conflicts to contend with, Montenegro has been a candidate country for a good 12 years now. While Podgorica is slowly making progress with reforms, there is little chance the country will join anytime soon.

Or take Turkey, which has been an official candidate to join the EU since way back in 1999. Whisper it, but those long timelines don't bother many EU countries' leaders at all.

So while Moldova and Ukraine -- and to a lesser extent Georgia -- should celebrate their new "European perspectives," unthinkable just a few months ago, the road ahead is still incredibly long.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.