The European Union’s top official on Wednesday called for a major expansion of the bloc to include not only Ukraine but also Moldova, several Western Balkan nations and Georgia over the next few years, a move that would push the group from 27 to over 30 members with more than half a billion citizens, and would make the world’s largest free-trade, free-travel area even larger.
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had pushed Europe to respond “to the call of history.”
“In a world where size and weight matter, it is clearly in Europe’s strategic and security interest to complete our Union,” she said in her annual State of the European Union address at the European Parliament in the French city of Strasbourg.
The process of accession normally takes many years. The bloc is expected to decide in December whether to allow Ukraine to begin negotiations to become a member, which would require the unanimous backing of all 27 member states.
Ms. von der Leyen said that the aspiring new members should undergo rigorous reforms before joining the bloc. Addressing the concern of many longtime E.U. members, such as the Netherlands, she also stressed that rule of law — which involves rooting out corruption — should be at the heart of their accession.
The closely watched address sets the agenda for the year ahead and is the last in her five-year term, which ends next summer with elections held across the E.U. Ms. von der Leyen has not yet confirmed whether she will seek the post again.
“We will be at Ukraine’s side every step of the way. For as long as it takes,” said Ms. von der Leyen, one of the most vocal and steadfast of Ukraine’s supporters in Europe.
She also announced that the bloc, which hosts about four million Ukrainian refugees, will continue affording them a special status that automatically grants them access to health, education and labor markets, for another year.