EU leaders agreed at a summit on Thursday to make Ukraine and Moldova candidates to join the bloc, a historic move by Brussels in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Today marks a crucial step on your path towards the EU,” tweeted European Council president Charles Michel, who chaired the leaders’ meeting. “Our future is together,” he added.
The symbolic step, taken by Brussels in record time, is a victory for Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his government’s strongly pro-western integration agenda.
In a video address Zelenskyy. said: “This is the greatest step towards strengthening Europe that could be taken right now, in our time, and precisely in the context of Russia’s war, which is testing our ability to preserve freedom and unity.”
He went on: “Thank you to the summit of all European leaders. Thank you to our heroes — to everyone and everyone who defends the independence of Ukraine and the freedom of Europe with weapons in their hands.”
Andriy Yermak, the Ukraine president’s chief of staff in a tweet said: “We thank the Ukrainian people and the army [for] having shown the importance of European values.”
Referring to the country’s fierce but costly resistance to Russia’s full-scale invasion, which has claimed thousands of lives over four months, Yermak said: “We are paying a high price.”
The move by EU governments comes almost nine years after pro-EU demonstrations in Kyiv erupted against the president at the time, who was pro-Russian. These sparked a protest movement that ended in his removal and indirectly led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and to Putin’s renewed invasion of the rest of the country this spring.
However, the decision is very unlikely to lead to sudden membership. The leaders set out a number of conditions related to the rule of law, corruption and the judiciary which Ukraine must meet in order to progress to the next stage of accession negotiations.
Yermak said Zelenskyy’s administration was “ready for further necessary reforms” required for Ukraine to formally become an EU member.
The most recent country to join the EU, Croatia, took nine years to move from candidate status to membership.
Moldova, another former Soviet state, was also recognised as an EU candidate country at the summit on Thursday, also with additional conditions before it can progress to full negotiations.
Georgia, which applied to join in the weeks following Putin’s invasion, was told it could only be granted candidacy if it first met a series of conditions.
The widely expected decisions were informally agreed by EU member state ambassadors at a meeting on Monday, but needed the endorsement of the bloc’s leaders.
The Thursday agreement was held up for several hours by demands from central European countries, including Austria and Hungary, over giving Bosnia and Herzegovina the same status as Georgia. Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer said: “Bosnia was at the heart of the debate for 3.5 hours.”
The European Commission was urged to assist the former Yugoslav republic with its outstanding reforms before potentially being granted candidate status later this year.