“Good work has been done” by Ukraine, but more is needed, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.
Ukraine must make “important” reforms – on rule of law, oligarchs, human rights and tackling corruption, she added.
Candidacy status is a significant step to joining the EU. However, the whole process can take many years.
The recommendation from the European Commission still needs to be signed off by the EU’s 27 member states, who meet to discuss it next week. The French, German and Italian leaders have already backed Ukraine’s bid, but the decision must be unanimous.
Speaking from Brussels and wearing blue and yellow – the colours of Ukraine – Ms von der Leyen said Ukrainians were “ready to die” for the European perspective.
“We want them to live with us in the European dream,” she said, adding that Ukraine had shown its “aspiration and determination to live up to European values and standards”.
But it is conditional – Ukraine has work to do, she said, to ensure international law is respected.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted that the “historic decision” would bring “victory closer”.
Meanwhile in Russia, the Kremlin has been watching Ukraine’s efforts to join the EU very closely.
The development “requires our heightened attention, because we are all aware of the intensification of discussions in Europe on the subject of strengthening the defence component of the EU”, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters at his regular news briefing.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested Russia would not oppose Ukraine’s accession to the EU.
“We have never been against it. We have always been against military utilisation of Ukraine territory. As regards economic integration, that is their choice,” he told the St Petersburg economic forum.
Ukraine’s neighbours, Moldova and Georgia – both ex-Soviet nations – also applied for EU membership shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, concerned that other countries that were once part of the Soviet Union would be next.
Ms von der Leyen announced support for Moldova – one of Europe’s poorest countries – to move to candidacy status, but not Georgia.
“[Moldova] is on a real pro-reform, anti-corruption and European path,” she said. “Georgia must now come together politically to design a clear path towards structural reform and the EU.”
There are five nations that currently have EU candidacy status – Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey.
Wearing Ukraine’s colours, Ursula Von der Leyen’s message wasn’t subtle – the EU wants to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
But there are caveats.
The recommendation has to be signed off by member states, although after heavyweights France, Germany and Italy threw themselves behind the plans yesterday, that seems likely to happen.
There are also, though, conditions attached to today’s announcement; such as the need for further judicial and anti-corruption reforms.
Ms Von der Leyen insisted the whole process would be done “by the book”. That’s potentially to signal to countries who have long been in the waiting room that they won’t be unfairly leapfrogged.
But it’s also a message to existing EU member states who are generally wary of “enlargement”.
There are Brussels diplomats who warn privately that, while it’s important to give Ukrainians hope, there’s a risk it could come to feel like false hope if the process gets stuck years down the line.