BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union agreed Thursday to put Ukraine on the path to EU membership, moving with unusual speed and unity to move the beleaguered country away from Russian influence and closer to the West.
Meeting at a summit in Brussels, the leaders of the 27 EU nations won the unanimous approval required to grant Ukraine candidate status. That sets in motion a membership process that could take years or even decades.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted his gratitude, declaring: “Ukraine’s future lies within the EU.”
“It is a victory. We have been waiting for 120 days and 30 years,” she said on Instagram, referring to the length of the war and the decades since Ukraine became independent following the breakup of the Soviet Union. “And now we will defeat the enemy.”
The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, called it a “good day for Europe”.
The EU also granted candidate status to the tiny country of Moldova, another former Soviet republic that borders Ukraine.
Ukraine applied for membership less than a week after Moscow invaded on February 24. Thursday’s decision was unusually swift for the EU and its slow approach to expansion. But the war and Ukraine’s request for expedited consideration gave urgency to the country’s cause.
To gain EU membership, countries must meet a detailed set of economic and political conditions, including a commitment to the rule of law and other democratic principles. Ukraine will have to curb entrenched government corruption and adopt other reforms.
The European Parliament backed Ukraine’s offer hours before the summit began, passing a resolution urging EU governments to “act without delay” and “live up to their historic responsibility.”
“It will strengthen Ukraine, it will strengthen Europe. It is a decision for freedom and democracy and it puts us on the right side of history”, said the president of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, before the final decision.
EU nations have come together to back Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion with money and weapons, adopting unprecedented economic sanctions against the Kremlin.
EU candidate status does not grant an automatic right to join the bloc and does not provide immediate security guarantees.
However, once a country gains membership, it is covered by a clause in the EU treaty that says that if a member is the victim of armed aggression, the other EU countries are obliged to help him by all means to your reach.
However, the main benefits of EU membership are economic, as it gives access to a market of 450 million consumers with free movement of labour, goods, services and capital.
Ukraine has also long aspired to join NATO, but the military alliance is unwilling to offer an invitation, in part because of government corruption, weaknesses in the country’s defense system and its disputed borders.
Before the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO, which he has condemned for expanding eastward on Russia’s flank. But earlier this month, he did not seem upset by Ukraine’s determination to move closer to the EU, saying it is not a military pact and therefore “we have no objections.”
EU leaders also agreed on Thursday to recognize a “European perspective” for another former Soviet republic, Georgia. European Council President Charles Michel said the EU would be ready to approve his candidate status once “unresolved priorities” are addressed.
Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, whose country has been a strong supporter of Ukraine’s European aspirations for years, said on Twitter: “This is a great moment for the unity of Europe and for the defense of its basic values. The fight for freedom continues.”
The enrollment process can be long and tortuous.
Turkey, for example, applied for membership in 1987, received candidate status in 1999, and had to wait until 2005 to begin actual entry talks. Only one of more than 30 negotiating “chapters” has been completed in the years since, and the entire process is at a standstill as a result of several disputes between the EU and Turkey.
Similarly, several Balkan countries have been unsuccessfully seeking to join the EU for many years.
European officials have said that Ukraine has already adopted around 70% of EU norms and standards, but have also pointed to corruption and the need for deep political and economic reforms in the country.
“Considerable efforts will be needed, especially in the fight against corruption and the establishment of an effective rule of law,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said. “But I am convinced that it is precisely the (post-war) reconstruction of Ukraine that will provide opportunities to take important steps forward.”
Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine