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Brussels — EU leaders formally accepted Ukraine as a candidate to join the 27-nation bloc on Thursday, a bold geopolitical move hailed by Ukraine and the EU as a “historic moment”.
Though it could take Ukraine and neighbouring Moldova more than a decade to qualify for membership, the decision at a two-day EU summit is a symbolic step that signals the bloc’s intention to reach deep into the former Soviet Union.
“Ukraine will prevail. Europe will prevail. Today marks the beginning of a long journey that we will walk together,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said.
The EU leaders’ unusually quick decision to give Ukraine candidate status was triggered by Russia’s invasion in February. EU leaders stressed, however, that the bloc will need a major overhaul of its decision-making process before it can enlarge again — and Ukraine and Moldova will have much “homework” to do.
“I am convinced that they will move as swiftly as possible and work as hard as possible to implement the necessary reforms, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the EU’s decision as “a unique and historic moment”, tweeting “Ukraine’s future is in the EU.”
The move, which also sees Moldova being granted candidate status, kick-starts the EU’s most ambitious expansion since it welcomed East European states after the Cold War.
Behind the triumphant rhetoric, however, there is concern within the EU about how the bloc can remain coherent as it continues to enlarge.
After starting in 1951 as an organisation of six countries to regulate industrial production, the EU now has 27 members that face complex challenges from climate change and the rise of China to a war on their own doorstep.
Russian President Vladimir Putin says his “special military operation” launched in Ukraine in late February was partly necessitated by Western encroachment into what Putin says is Russia’s rightful geographical sphere of influence.
The EU’s green light “is a signal to Moscow that Ukraine, and also other countries from the former Soviet Union, cannot belong to the Russian spheres of influence”, Ukraine’s EU ambassador, Chentsov Vsevolod, told Reuters earlier on Thursday.
While Ukraine and Moldova were welcomed into the EU’s waiting room, Georgia was given “a European perspective” but told it must fulfil conditions before winning candidate status.
Reticence over EU enlargement has slowed progress towards membership for a group of Balkans countries — Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia — the leaders of which met their EU counterparts in Brussels earlier in the day.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, voicing their frustration, said as he arrived at that meeting: “Welcome to Ukraine, it’s a good thing to give candidate status, but I hope the Ukrainian people will not have much illusions about this.”
A draft of the summit statement showed that EU leaders would again give “full and unequivocal commitment to the EU membership perspective of the Western Balkans”.
But Ukraine’s fast track to formal candidate status has only served to increase their feeling of being sidelined, which carries the risk for the EU that Russia and China extend their influence into the Balkan region.
“The more the EU doesn’t give a unified and a clear sign to the western Balkans, the more other malign factors will use that space and that vacuum,” Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani said.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said this week that the EU must “reform its internal procedures” to prepare for the accession of new members, singling out the need for key issues to be agreed with a qualified majority rather than by unanimity.
The requirement for unanimity often frustrates EU ambitions because member states can block decisions or water them down.
Despite waves of crises that have rocked the EU, from migration and Britain's exit from the bloc, the union remains popular, with a survey this week showing approval for EU membership is at 15-year high.
Still, public discontent is mounting over inflation and an energy crisis as Russia tightens gas supplies in response to sanctions, issues for the second day of the summit on Friday.
Update: June 23 2022This story has been updated with the EU’s decision.
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