Ukraine could become a candidate for EU membership, the first step in a lengthy process to join the 27-nation bloc, after it was proposed by the European Commission. 

The European Union’s executive arm has recommended the war-torn country receive candidate status after a fast-tracked analysis of answers to a questionnaire.

Ukraine's government applied for membership less than a week after Russian forces invaded in February.

“Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective,” commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “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.

It is likely it could take years or even decades for the endorsement to lead to EU membership.

Launching accession talks with a potential member requires unanimous approval from all member nations, and they have differing views on how quickly to add Ukraine.

Ukraine’s bid received a boost on Thursday when the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Romania visited the country and vowed to back Kyiv in becoming an official candidate.

To be admitted, potential newcomers need to demonstrate they meet EU standards on issues such as fighting corruption and democratic principles and must absorb about 80,000 pages of rules covering everything from trade and immigration to fertiliser and the rule of law.

“Yes, Ukraine deserves a European perspective,” Ms von der Leyen said on Friday.

“It should be welcomed as a candidate country, on the understanding that important work remains to be done. The entire process is merits-based. It goes by the book and therefore, progress depends entirely on Ukraine.”

Ukraine has has an association agreement with the EU aimed at opening its markets and bringing it closer to Europe. It includes a far-reaching free trade pact.

Ms 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 programmes,” 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.”

She said the country should continue to make progress in the fields of rule of law and fighting corruption, and 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 process 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 applied for membership in 1987, received candidate status in 1999, and had to wait until 2005 to start talks for entry.

Six Western Balkan countries – Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo – have been in the queue for decades, and only Serbia and Montenegro have the candidate status that was proposed for Ukraine.

At their June 23 summit, EU heads of state and government face a delicate balancing act: signalling to Ukraine that the door is open while reassuring other aspiring members and some of the bloc’s own citizens that they are not showing favouritism to Kyiv.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday he was grateful for the European 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”.

Mr Zelensky added that he “expected a positive result” from the EU summit in Brussels.

Earlier on Friday, the president said it was in all of Europe’s interest to see Moscow is defeated in his country.

Speaking at an annual discussion forum in North Macedonia, Mr Zelensky said Moscow’s actions even before the war had “challenged every nation on the continent, every region of Europe”.

“Today, there is not a single country left in Europe that would not have suffered from at least one of the many manifestations of Russian anti-European policies,” he said.