European leaders gave Ukraine the status of a European Union candidate at a summit on Thursday in a key sign of ongoing support for Ukrainian resistance against Russian invaders and confidence in Ukraine’s future.
The president of the European Council, former Belgian prime minister Charles Michel, announced the news on Twitter.
“A historic moment,” Michel wrote. “Our future is together.”
The council — which comprises the heads of state of all EU member countries — additionally approved candidate status for Moldova, which also worries about Russian ambition regarding its territory.
Neither country will immediately join the 27-country bloc: European officials want both countries to improve their judicial systems and tackle systematic corruption to meet EU standards before beginning membership negotiations, which are unlikely to start any time soon. But gaining candidate status is likely to boost Ukrainian morale amid tough fighting in the country’s east, and analysts say the move should help Ukrainian activists secure difficult domestic reforms.
Ukraine applied to join the EU days after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of the country in February. Top Ukrainians, including President Volodymr Zelenskyy, and their international supporters have spent months promoting the idea of membership for Kyiv ― and won broad European agreement in an extremely short time considering the difficulty of securing unanimous support from EU members. The European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, recommended candidacy status for Ukraine last week, and even EU states close to Russia, such as Hungary, have not sought to block the plan.
Though Putin has cited Ukraine’s ties to the West as a concern that helped drive his decision to invade, he has said he does not have a problem with seeing the country as an EU member. Still, Zelenskyy has warned of possible Russian retaliation to the move, like an uptick in assaults on Ukrainian targets.
The EU has a mutual defense clause, but most governments see it as far weaker than the joint defense agreement in the NATO military alliance, which also includes the United States and former E.U. member Britain. That’s a key reason why European Union members Sweden and Finland reacted to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine by rushing to join NATO.
Moving toward EU membership could be a major boon for Ukraine. Symbolically, it would demonstrate Kyiv’s independence from Russia, where Putin and his allies have repeatedly questioned whether Ukrainians should be acknowledged as separate from Russians. And economically, drawing closer to the EU would likely make Ukraine more attractive to international investors, while eventual membership could come with major development grants from the union.
“Sincerely commend EU leaders’ decision... it’s a unique and historical moment,” Zelenksyy wrote on Twitter after the news broke.
Several other countries, including Turkey and Serbia, are also EU candidates, yet their membership processes are largely frozen.
European solidarity with Ukraine ― and horror at Russian brutality during the war ― makes Kyiv’s bid seem more likely to succeed in the years ahead. And for now, the stamp of approval from the heads of state of EU members could also help address the growing war-weariness among some Europeans, showing that assistance to Ukrainians extends beyond weapon shipments.
The EU has separately imposed several rounds of unprecedented sanctions on Moscow to try to pressure Putin to halt his assault, including a ban on most imports of oil from Russia.