Ukraine grants EU candidate status at European Council summit

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BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders agreed Thursday to make Ukraine a candidate for membership of the bloc, a symbolic victory for Kyiv amid war with Russia and another sign of how the conflict is reshaping the world.

Candidate status does not confer membership, which could still be decades away. But the decision is a historic step for Europe and sends a signal to Moscow.

The heads of state and government, meeting in Brussels for a two-day European Council summit, also agreed on Moldova’s bid. Ukraine and Moldova Both will be required to meet certain conditions as candidates to move forward. The leaders said that Georgia will become a candidate after meeting other conditions.

“This is a defining moment and a very good day for Europe,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference in Brussels. “It strengthens Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia against Russian aggression and strengthens the European Union.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the news. “We sincerely congratulate the decision of the EU leaders,” he said. tweeted.

The Kremlin claims that Ukraine, a sovereign state, it is not a real country and he wants to bring it into Moscow’s sphere of influence by force. Vsevolod Chentsov, head of Ukraine’s mission to the EU, said a path to membership in the bloc sends the message that Ukraine is a very real country with a future of its choosing.

For Ukrainians worn down by months of struggle, EU candidate status is a “gesture of confidence,” Chentsov said this week, and an indication that “the EU believes that Ukraine can do this.”

The EU has granted Ukraine candidate status. This is what it means.

Leaders, diplomats and officials expressed surprise that member states could finally agree on Ukraine, as well as Moldova and Georgia, after years of debate and impasse.

“Just a few months ago, I was really skeptical that we would get to this position,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said on Thursday. “I’m very glad we’re there.”

An EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe private talks, said the bloc’s leaders had made more progress on enlargement in the last two weeks “than in the last 25 years.”

The decision comes at a difficult time for Ukraine. Russian forces have made further gains south of the eastern city of Lysychansk, Ukrainian authorities said on Thursday, reportedly prompting defending forces to change position to avoid being surrounded.

The fall of the Loskutivka and Rai-Oleksandrivka settlements followed Russia’s takeover of the strategic town of Toshkivka earlier in the week. Much of Severodonetsk, Lysychansk’s battered twin city, is under Russian control as Moscow seeks to occupy the entire Luhansk province.

Ukraine’s defense minister said on Thursday that the country had received a batch of M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, commonly known as HIMARS, from the United States. The weapons will allow Ukrainian forces to launch multiple rockets at Russian artillery and forces quickly and accurately, US officials say.

The news from Brussels offered a morale boost to the Ukrainians. “Ukraine will prevail. Europe will prevail,” Ukrainian Foreign Ministry Dmytro Kuleba said in a statement. video message.

“Today marks the beginning of a long road that we will walk together,” he continued. “The Ukrainian people belong to the European family. The future of Ukraine is in the EU”.

Ukraine has long sought to join the EU. Days after the war, Zelensky advocated an accelerated path to membership, seeing candidacy as a matter of survival. While the Baltic states and other Eastern European countries supported the idea, many member states rejected it.

During the spring, the leaders of those countries seemed happy to pose with Zelensky, but were hesitant to offer Ukraine a path to membership.

“None of the 27 would say ‘no’ directly to the president’s face,” Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for Ukraine’s European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, told The Washington Post on a June 9 visit to Brussels. “But what is happening behind the scenes is a clear desire to put obstacles in the way of the process.”

Zelensky pressed EU leaders to do more. Granting candidate status to Ukraine “would show that words about the Ukrainian people’s longing to be part of the European family are not just words,” he said in a June 10 speech. The next day, von der Leyen paid a surprise visit to Kyiv to finalize his evaluation of the country’s candidacy.

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As von der Leyen continued to tout Ukraine’s readiness, Ukrainian diplomats toured European capitals to keep up the pressure. Some reticent, fearful of being seen as an obstacle to Ukraine, began to downplay his earlier skepticism.

Last week, the leaders of Germany, France and Italy visited Kyiv and expressed their support for Ukraine’s candidacy. The next day, the commission recommended candidate status. Earlier this week, EU diplomats were calling it a “done deal.”

But the same diplomats warn that there is a long way to go. The commission laid out six steps for Ukraine to meet 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.

With the fighting in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian officials acknowledge that some reforms will be difficult to move forward with. “Inevitably, there will be issues that will need to be addressed after the shooting is over,” Chentsov said.

The challenges are not limited to Ukraine. Although the EU nations have decided to create a path to membership for three countries, the appetite for enlargement remains modest. Member states, having made a symbolic gesture, could now look for ways to slow things down.

Turkey submitted its application in 1987 and is still a candidate. Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia have been in EU membership talks for years.

Europe recovers behind Ukraine. But exhaustion is just around the corner.

A draft of the summit’s conclusions obtained by The Washington Post suggests that Ukraine’s membership could depend on the bloc’s “ability” to “absorb new members.” Some want to review EU decision-making before letting newcomers in.

If Ukraine joined now, it would become the fifth most populous member state and by far the poorest. Ukraine’s per capita GDP last year was $4,872, less than half that of the current poorest member Bulgaria of $11,683, according to International Monetary Fund estimates.

Some countries, particularly in Western Europe, remain concerned that a large new member could further complicate decision-making and tip the balance of power toward Central and Eastern Europe.

The leaders planned to meet again on Friday to discuss the impact of Russia’s war on the economy. Germany on Thursday raised the country’s alert level under its emergency gas plan as Russia cut deliveries to Europe.

World leaders, including President Biden, are scheduled to meet in Madrid next week for a NATO summit focused on the war in Ukraine and the future of the alliance.

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