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Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the move as a “unique and historic moment” in relations with the 27-nation bloc.
“Ukraine's future is in the EU,” he tweeted on Thursday evening.
The bold geopolitical move has been triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Although it could take Ukraine more than a decade to qualify for membership, the decision at a two-day EU summit is symbolic step that signals the bloc’s intention to reach deep into the former Soviet Union.
“A historic moment,” European Council chief Charles Michel tweeted. “Today marks a crucial step on your path towards the EU,” he said, adding: “Our future is together.”
Sincerely commend EU leaders’ decision at #EUCO to grant 🇺🇦 a candidate status. It’s a unique and historical moment in 🇺🇦-🇪🇺 relations. Grateful to @CharlesMichel, @vonderleyen and EU leaders for support. Ukraine’s future is within the EU. #EmbraceUkraine https://t.co/o6dJVmTQrn
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) June 23, 2022
The move, which also sees Moldova being granted candidate status, kick-starts the EU’s most ambitious expansion since it welcomed Eastern European states after the Cold War.
“All the people in Ukraine are watching and waiting for this decision,” said Ivan Zichenko, a 34-year-old Ukrainian from the devastated city of Kharkiv, who now lives in Brussels.
“It’s very, very important to raise their morale,” he said as a few dozen people chanted “Ukraine is Europe” at a rally outside the Brussels building where EU leaders were meeting.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pronounced it a “good day for Europe.”
Ukraine applied for membership less than a week after Moscow invaded on February 24.
Thursday’s decision was unusually rapid for the EU. But the war and Ukraine’s request for fast-track consideration lent urgency to its cause.
To gain EU membership, countries must meet a detailed host of economic and political conditions, including a commitment to the rule of law and other democratic principles. Ukraine, among other things, will also have to curb entrenched government corruption and adopt other reforms.
The European Parliament endorsed Ukraine’s bid hours before the summit started, passing a resolution that called on EU governments to “move without delay” and “live up to their historical responsibility.”
“It will strengthen Ukraine, it will strengthen Europe. It is a decision for freedom and democracy and puts us on the right side of history,” European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said ahead of the final announcement.
The EU’s nations have been united in backing Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion with money and weapons, adopting unprecedented economic sanctions against the Kremlin.
EU candidate status does not give an automatic right to join the bloc and does not provide any immediate security guarantees.
Once a country gains membership, however, it is covered under an EU treaty clause that says if a member falls victim to armed aggression, the other EU countries are obligated to assist it by all the means in their power.