European leaders have granted Ukraine candidate status, in a historic decision that opens the door to EU membership for the war-torn country and deals a blow to Vladimir Putin.
EU leaders meeting in Brussels approved Ukraine’s candidate status on Thursday night, nearly four months after the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, launched his country’s bid to join the bloc in the early days of the Russian invasion. Moldova was also given candidate status.
Zelenskiy immediately welcomed the move, calling it “a unique and historic moment” in relations with the 27-nation bloc. “Ukraine’s future is in the EU,” he tweeted.
“It’s a victory,” Zelenskiy said on Instagram. “We have been waiting for 120 days and 30 years,” he added, referring to the duration of the war and the decades since Ukraine became independent on the breakup of the Soviet Union. “And now we will defeat the enemy.”
The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, declared it was “a good day for Europe”. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, said it was historic decision that sent “a strong signal towards Russia in the current geopolitical context”.
The move from applicant to candidate usually takes years, but the EU has dramatically accelerated the process, amid outrage over the brutality of the unprovoked Russian attack, and to show solidarity with Ukraine’s defenders.
“Ukraine is going through hell for a simple reason: its desire to join the EU,” von der Leyen had tweeted on the eve of the summit. The commission last week called on EU leaders to grant Ukraine’s candidate status.
Earlier, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said candidate status would “draw a line under decades of ambiguity and set it in stone: Ukraine is Europe, not part of the ‘Russian world’”.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU, Vsevolod Chentsov, said earlier this week that the EU had moved at “lightning speed” by its standards.
“We need this clarity [on EU membership] to support the Ukrainian army, Ukrainian society, morally, psychologically, and to get the clear feeling and understanding of the direction of movement for Ukraine,” he said.
Ukraine has been seeking EU membership since the 2004 “orange revolution” and more emphatically since the 2013-14 Maidan protests, when the pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted after he refused to sign an association agreement with the bloc. But before the war, EU membership was off the table for the country of 41 million people that is plagued by corruption.
When Zelenskiy announced Ukraine’s EU membership bid, many countries in western Europe were sceptical. Senior officials counted 10 member states that opposed candidate status for Ukraine, but the mood has shifted, as leaders feared being on the wrong side of history.
“Just a few months ago I was really sceptical that we would reach this position here where Ukraine gets candidate status,” said Estonia’s prime minister, Kaja Kallas, a long-term supporter of Kyiv’s membership hopes.
Arriving at the summit, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said he had been “a bit worried” that the commission was rushing into candidate status for Ukraine, but admitted he had been mistaken. The commission had drawn up a “tough assessment, brutally honest with Ukraine” on what still needs to be done to start membership talks. “The geopolitical situation since the end of February, the horrible and completely despicable aggression of Russia against Ukraine” was “also part of the situation in which we discuss this”, he added.
EU capitals also know membership talks will take many years. The process can go into reverse, if a future Kyiv government fails to implement reforms on the rule of law and aligning its economy to EU standards.
A draft copy of the summit conclusions seen by the Guardian states that the progress of a candidate country will depend on “its own merit” but also “taking into consideration the EU’s capacity to absorb new members”.
Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has said that the EU must “reform its internal procedures” to prepare for new members, calling for greater use of qualified majority votes in areas such as foreign policy, to end one country blocking a decision.
France is one of several countries that opposes giving up its veto over foreign policy decisions.
EU leaders also granted EU candidate status to Moldova, the former Soviet country of 3.5 million that has experienced a surge in tensions since the Russian invasion of its neighbour.
Georgia was granted a “European perspective”, a rung on the ladder below candidate status. EU leaders agreed the former Soviet state could also be given candidate status if Tbilisi moved forward with reforms to uphold the rule of law and protect media freedom. “The longing to the European Union is the strongest push on the path forward,” Von der Leyen said, in a possible nod to the tens of thousands of people demonstrating in Tbilisi on Wednesday in favour of joining the EU.
Western Balkan leaders, who were also meeting their EU counterparts in Brussels, welcomed the positive decision for Ukraine, while bitterly lamenting the region’s slow progress to joining. “North Macedonia is a candidate for 17 years if I have not lost count, Albania since eight, so welcome to Ukraine,” Albania’s prime minister, Edi Rama, said. “It’s a good thing to give Ukraine the status. But I hope that Ukrainian people will not make many illusions.”
North Macedonia has been blocked from starting EU membership talks by Bulgaria, over a dispute about the interpretation of history. Bulgaria’s prime minister, Kiril Petkov, had hoped to lift the veto, but lost a vote of no-confidence on Wednesday, throwing into doubt any imminent deal. Albania, whose EU accession is linked to North Macedonia’s, lashed out at the behaviour of a Nato ally.
“It’s a disgrace that a Nato country, Bulgaria, kidnaps two other Nato countries, namely, Albania and North Macedonia, in the midst of hot war in Europe’s back yard with 26 other countries sitting still in a scary show of impotence,” Rama said.