By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Ukraine has made "great strides" towards joining the European Union since getting candidate status in 2022, but hard work still lies ahead, the head of the bloc's executive said in her annual speech on Wednesday.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg as the 27-nation bloc starts debating whether to grant Kyiv a formal start to EU membership negotiations at an EU summit due on Dec. 14-15.
"We know this is not an easy road," von der Leyen said. "Accession is merit-based ... It takes hard work and leadership. But there is already a lot of progress. We have seen the great strides Ukraine has already made since."
EU lawmakers applauded as von der Leyen said the future of Ukraine, Moldova and Western Balkan countries "is in our union". But she struck a more cautious tone on another hopeful, Georgia, which EU officials say has slid back on its path to membership.
"I know how important the EU perspective is for so many people in Georgia," she said, without clearly mentioning the prospect of Tbilisi joining one day.
She said the bloc had to prepare to be able to take in new member states, something another top EU official - chairman Charles Michel - said the EU needed to be ready for by 2030.
That date was quickly dismissed by both proponents of extending the bloc - a camp that includes Poland, the Baltics and Austria - and those much more cautious on the idea, such as the Netherlands and Denmark.
The EU's top power Germany is usually somewhere between the two and EU officials say France seems to have warned to the idea, joining Berlin from the opposing camp. The debate will be top of the bloc's foreign policy agenda until the end of the year.
Ukraine and other hopefuls must meet strict criteria including on democratic track record and economic performance to advance on their path to eventual membership, a complex process that takes years.
Any enlargement must clear the hurdle of winning unanimous approval of all existing members as it would also have major internal consequences for the bloc.
For example, Ukraine would become the bloc's fifth-biggest country by population with major agricultural production, potentially bringing in new competition for EU farmers while also taking in much of the bloc's development subsidies.
(Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Alison Williams)