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Commission and Presidency both optimistic that Ukraine and Moldova will be on path towards membership

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After the argument about sanctions on Russia last time they met, there’s optimism that EU leaders can agree this time about letting Ukraine and Moldova begin the long journey to EU membership. They are also likely to agree that Georgia is not quite ready to take the first step but it's the countries in the Western Balkans that are becoming impatient, writes Political Editor Nick Powell.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was in lyrical mood in her pre-summit address to the European Parliament. “History is on the march,” she said, making it clear that she wasn’t just talking about the battle for Ukraine but also “the wind of change that is blowing across our continent”.

It was a wind blowing east, where “the path of democracy is the road that will lead to Europe”. Ukraine was described by the Commission President as a “very robust and resilient democracy”, with free and fair elections and an active and dynamic civil society.

Ursula von der Leyen recalled the Maidan protests in 2014 that set Ukraine on its course to democracy and applying for EU membership -and set Russia on its course to war. Ukraine had been a country where people had been shot for wrapping themselves in European flags because they had “Europe in their hearts”.

Her only message of tough love to a country at war was that its anti-corruption bodies needed to flex their muscles. But Ukraine deserved a European perspective and candidate status, on the understanding that reforms will be carried out.

Moldova too had the potential for EU membership, “provided its leaders stay the course -and I have no doubt about that”. Georgia though could be granted a European perspective but not candidate status until there was broader political support in Tbilisi for the necessary political reforms.

President von der Leyen claimed that the Commission had taken a merit-based approach to the three applications. The European institutions had always welcomed ‘young democracies’, from West Germany to Greece, Spain and Portugal to the post-communist countries.

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In the European Parliament, where most members have enthusiastically backed enlargement, she was mostly preaching to the choir. But it did sound like a done deal to start the accession process when the European Council gets underway.

On behalf of the French Presidency of the EU, Europe Minister Clément Beaune said that he hoped and believed that candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova would be agreed by consensus in the Council. Georgia, he added, had yet to meet certain requirements, including the release of political prisoners.

Such consensus would make a change form the squabbling over sanctions on Russia that dominated the last meeting of the Council. Clément Beaune said it was now a case of maintaining the pressure with the range of sanctions that the heads of government had agreed to introduce.

The greatest scope for disharmony will probably be in the session with Western Balkan leaders before the main Council gets underway. President von der Leyen said she wanted to get all six countries in the region onto the path to membership. But with their applications stalled at different stages, there’s been doubt that they will even all turn up for the meeting.

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