BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union (EU) on Thursday agreed to move Ukraine toward EU membership, moving away from Russia’s influence and moving the country closer to the West, with extraordinary speed and unity.
At the summit in Brussels, the leaders of the 27 EU countries gathered the unanimous approval needed to grant Ukraine candidate status. It drives the membership process that can take years or even decades.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zhelensky tweeted his gratitude, declaring that “Ukraine’s future lies within the European Union.”
“It simply came to our notice then. We have been waiting 120 days and 30 years, ”he said on Instagram, referring to the war and decades since Ukraine’s independence after the break-up of the Soviet Union. “Now we will defeat the enemy.”
“This is a good day for Europe,” said Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission.
There was no immediate reaction from the Kremlin.
The European Union also granted candidate status to Moldova, another small country in the former Soviet republic bordering Ukraine.
Within a week of the invasion of Moscow on February 24, Ukraine applied for membership. Thursday’s decision was unusually quick for the EU and its slow approach to expansion. But the war and Ukraine’s demand for a speedy reconsideration hastened the cause.
In order to gain EU membership, countries must meet a comprehensive set of economic and political conditions, including the rule of law and commitment to other democratic principles. Ukraine must control government corruption and pursue other reforms.
Just hours before the summit, the European Parliament approved Ukraine’s initiative, a resolution calling on EU governments to “move without delay.”
“It will strengthen Ukraine, it will strengthen Europe. It is an end in itself for freedom and democracy and puts us on the right side of history,” European Parliament Speaker Roberta Metzola said before the final decision.
The European Union (EU) has joined forces with Ukraine in accepting unprecedented sanctions against the Kremlin and supporting the fight against Russian invasion with money and weapons.
EU candidate status does not guarantee any immediate security. However, once a country becomes a member, it is covered under the EU treaty, and if a member falls victim to armed aggression, the other EU countries are obliged to assist it in every possible way in their power.
However, the main advantage of EU membership is the economy, as it provides access to a 450 million consumer market with free movement of labor, goods, services and capital.
Ukraine has long wanted to join NATO, but the military federation has not issued a call because of the country’s corruption, shortcomings in its security system and its competing borders.
Before the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO, which he condemned as spreading eastward along Russia’s side. But earlier this month he said he was not worried about Ukraine’s commitment to getting closer to the EU, saying it was not a military agreement and thus “we have no objection”.
In 2013, however, Putin opposed Ukraine’s plans to sign a joint agreement with the European Union and pressured the Ukrainian president to leave at the last minute. It retreated by provoking mass protests, which eventually ousted the president and introduced more interested leaders than ever before to bring Ukraine into the Western fold.
In the following years, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and provoked a separatist uprising in the Donbass region of the country in the east.
EU leaders on Thursday agreed to recognize the “European perspective” on another former Soviet republic, Georgia. Charles Michel, chairman of the European Council, said the EU would be ready to recognize its candidacy once the “best priorities” were noted.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who has been a staunch supporter of Ukraine’s European aspirations for many years, said on Twitter: “This is a great moment for the unity of Europe and for the defense of its fundamental values. The struggle for independence continues.
The membership process can be lengthy and difficult.
Turkey applied for membership in 1987, gained candidate status in 1999, and had to wait until 2005 to begin negotiations for actual entry. The whole process has come to a standstill due to various conflicts between the EU and Turkey.
Similarly, many Balkan countries have been seeking for years to join the EU.
European officials say Ukraine has already adopted 70% of EU rules and standards, but they also point to the need for other far-reaching measures.
“Substantial efforts will be required, especially in the fight against corruption and the establishment of an effective rule of law,” said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Grue. “But I firmly believe that the reconstruction of Ukraine will provide opportunities to take precisely important steps.”
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