EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday, Sept. 13,  that Ukraine has made "great strides" in its quest for EU membership, as Kyiv presses to open accession talks this year.

"The future of Ukraine is in our Union," the European Commission president said during her annual state of the EU address to lawmakers.

Ukraine was made an official candidate to join the 27-nation bloc last June in the wake of Russia's all-out invasion.

Kyiv is now urging the EU's member states to agree to move onto the next step of opening formal membership talks this year.

Von der Leyen's commission, the EU's executive arm, is expected to give its opinion next month on whether Ukraine is ready to begin negotiations.

"Accession is merit-based -- and the commission will always defend this principle. It takes hard work and leadership," von der Leyen said.

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"But there is already a lot of progress. We have seen the great strides Ukraine has already made since we granted them candidate status."

The commission said in an interim report in June that Kyiv had completed two of seven reform benchmarks it had been set to open talks.

Ukraine, along with neighbouring Moldova, has joined a group of nations from the western Balkans who have been waiting for years to make progress on their bids to join the EU.

Von der Leyen said that the bloc must get ready to accept new members, without waiting to first change its own founding treaties.

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Ukrainian forces have in recent weeks escalated aerial attacks on Russian border regions but have also been able to strike targets deep inside Russian territory.

The commission head told MEPs the EU should streamline its decision-making but "we cannot -– and we should not –- wait for treaty change to move ahead with enlargement," she said.

"A union fit for enlargement can be achieved faster," she said.

She said the commission would launch a raft of "policy reviews" to see how the EU could adapt in key areas if it expands, and put forward ideas to EU leaders in the first half of next year.

"These are questions we must address today if we want to be ready for tomorrow," she said.

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