© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during a special session of the European Council at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium, May 30, 2022. Kenzo Tribouillard/Pool via REUTERS
Sabine Siebold and Ingrid Mayland
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders formally accepted Ukraine as a candidate to join the 27-nation bloc on Thursday, in a bold geopolitical move that Ukraine and the European Union itself hailed as a “historic moment”.
While Ukraine and neighbouring Moldova may take more than a decade to gain membership, the decision at the two-day EU summit is a symbolic step in the bloc’s intention to go deeper into the former Soviet Union.
“Ukraine will prevail. Europe will prevail. Today marks the beginning of a long journey that we will go on together,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
The unusually quick decision by EU leaders to grant Ukraine candidacy was triggered by a Russian invasion. However, EU leaders stressed that the bloc will need a major overhaul of its decision-making process before it can scale up again – Ukraine and Moldova will have a lot of “homework” to do.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference: “I am confident that they will act as soon as possible and try to implement the necessary reforms as hard as possible.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the EU decision, calling it “a unique historic moment” and tweeting that “Ukraine’s future is in the EU”.
The move also gives Moldova candidacy, launching the EU’s most ambitious expansion since welcoming the eastern European country after the Cold War.
Behind the triumphant rhetoric, however, are concerns within the EU about how the bloc will remain coherent as it continues to expand.
After the European Union began in 1951 as a six-nation organization to manage industrial production, its 27 member states now face complex challenges ranging from climate change and the rise of China to war on their doorstep.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said his “special military operation” in Ukraine in late February was in part due to Western intrusions into Russia’s so-called legitimate geographic sphere of influence.
The EU’s green light “is a signal to Moscow that Ukraine, as well as other ex-Soviet states, cannot be part of Russia’s sphere of influence,” Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU, Tsentsov Visevolod, told Reuters earlier on Thursday.
While Ukraine and Moldova were welcomed into EU waiting rooms, Georgia was given a “European perspective” but was told conditions must be met to qualify for candidacy.
Silence over EU enlargement has slowed progress in the membership of the Balkan nations — Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia — whose leaders met their EU counterparts in Brussels earlier in the day.
Expressing their disappointment, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said on his arrival at that meeting: “Welcome to Ukraine, it’s good to give candidate status, but I hope the Ukrainian people don’t do it too many fantasies.”
The draft summit statement said EU leaders would once again make “full and clear commitments to the prospects of EU membership in the Western Balkans”.
But Ukraine’s quick access to formal candidacy has only increased their sense of marginalization, which poses the risk to the EU of Russia and China extending their influence into the Balkans.
“The less the EU sends a unified and clear signal to the Western Balkans, the more other malicious elements will take advantage of this space and vacuum,” Kosovo President Vijosa Osmani said.
German Chancellor Olaf Schultz said this week that the EU must “reform its internal procedures” to prepare for the entry of new members, noting that key issues require a specified majority rather than unanimous approval.
Consistent demands tend to thwart EU ambitions, as member states can block or downplay decisions.
The bloc remains popular despite a series of crises including immigration and Britain’s exit from the bloc, with approval rates among EU member states hitting a 15-year high, a survey this week showed.
Still, public dissatisfaction with inflation and the energy crisis is rising as Russia tightens gas supplies in response to sanctions on the second day of Friday’s summit.