The Heads of State and Government, gathered in Brussels for a two-day European Council, also gave their agreement to Moldova’s candidacy. Ukraine and Moldova both will need to meet certain requirements as candidates to move forward. The leaders said Georgia would become a candidate after fulfilling the conditions.
“Today is a good day for Europe,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted. “This decision strengthens us all. It strengthens Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia against Russian imperialism. And that strengthens the EU.
The Kremlin claims that Ukraine, a sovereign state, is not a real country and wants to introduce it by force into Moscow’s sphere of influence. Vsevolod Chentsov, the head of Ukraine’s mission to the EU, said a path to joining the bloc sends the message that Ukraine is a very real country with a future of its own.
For Ukrainians exhausted by months of fighting, EU candidate status is a “gest of confidence”, Chentsov said this week, and a sign that “the EU thinks Ukraine can do it”.
The EU has granted Ukraine candidate status. Here’s what that means.
Leaders, diplomats and officials expressed surprise that member states had agreed on Ukraine, as well as Moldova and Georgia, after years of debate and deadlock.
“Just a few months ago I was really skeptical about reaching this position,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said. “I’m very glad we’re here.”
An EU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said the bloc’s leaders had made more progress on enlargement in the past two weeks “than in the 25 last years”.
Ukraine has long wanted to join the EU. Within days of the start of the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky argued for a fast-track to membership, making the candidacy a matter of survival. While the Baltic states and other Eastern European countries backed the idea, many member states pushed back.
Over the spring, the leaders of those countries seemed happy to pose with Zelensky, but were reluctant to offer Ukraine a path to membership.
“None of the 27 would say ‘no’ to the president,” Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, told The Washington Post during a visit to Brussels on 9 June. “But what is happening behind the scenes is a clear desire to put obstacles in the way of the process.”
Zelensky urged European leaders to do more. Granting candidate status to Ukraine “would prove that words about the Ukrainian people’s desire to be part of the European family are not just words”, he said in a June 10 speech. The next day, von der Leyen made a surprise visit to Kyiv to finalize his assessment of the country’s bid.
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As von der Leyen continued to tout Ukraine’s preparedness, Ukrainian diplomats traveled to European capitals to keep the pressure on. Some holdouts, fearing they would be perceived as standing in the way of Ukraine, started to play down their earlier skepticism.
Last week, the leaders of Germany, France and Italy visited Kyiv and expressed their support for Ukraine’s bid. The following day, the commission recommended candidate status. Earlier this week, EU diplomats were calling it a “deal done”.
But the same diplomats warn there is a long way to go. Last week, the commission set out six steps for Ukraine to come together before it can move forward. Among them: implementing laws to ensure the selection of qualified judges; limit the influence of the oligarchs; and improving its record of corruption investigations, prosecutions and convictions.
As fighting rages in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian officials acknowledge that pushing through some reforms will be difficult. “Inevitably there will be issues that need to be resolved after the shooting stops,” Chentsov said.
The challenges are not limited to Ukraine. Although EU countries have decided to create an accession path for three of Russia’s neighbours, the appetite for enlargement remains modest. Member states, having made a token gesture, could now look for ways to slow things down.
Turkey applied in 1987 and remains a candidate. Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia have all been in accession talks with the EU for years.
Europe rallies behind Ukraine. But fatigue is around the corner.
Draft conclusions from the summit obtained by The Washington Post suggest that Ukraine’s membership could depend on the bloc’s “ability” to “absorb new members”. Some want to review the EU decision-making process before letting in newcomers.
If Ukraine joins now, it would become the fifth most populous and by far the poorest Member State. Ukraine’s GDP per capita last year was $4,872, less than half that of current poorest member Bulgaria at $11,683, according to International Monetary Fund estimates.
Some member states, particularly in Western Europe, remain concerned that a large new member could further complicate decision-making and tip the balance of power towards Central and Eastern Europe.
The leaders are scheduled to meet again on Thursday evening to discuss a French proposal for a “European Political Community” and on Friday to discuss the impact of Russia’s war on food supply, the economy and other questions.
World leaders, including President Biden, are due to meet in Madrid next week for a NATO summit focused on the war in Ukraine and the future of the alliance.