European leaders granted Ukraine candidate status on June 23, in a historic step on the long and difficult path to EU membership for the war-torn country.
The government heads holding a two-day summit in Brussels approved a recommendation from the European Council to endorse Ukraine as a candidate country. The decision sets Kyiv on a path toward joining the 27-nation bloc, though the membership process can take a decade or even longer to complete.
While largely symbolic, the long-awaited decision is a win for Ukraine defending itself from a Russian invasion and another sign of how the conflict is reshaping the world.
Ukraine, which applied for membership shortly after Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February, will need to meet conditions in the future on issues related to justice, the rule of law and anti-corruption.
Ever since signing the membership application on Feb. 28, President Volodymyr Zelensky has spent the past few months demonstrating that Ukraine is on a path to a closer relationship with Europe, seeking moral support in countering Russia’s aggression.
The Ukrainian leader spoke of his country’s desire to attain candidate status in almost every speech over the past week, empasizing that taking the first official step toward EU membership will permanently shift Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence.
Zelensky hailed the decision as “a unique and historic moment,” thanking European leaders for support with a statement that “Ukraine’s future is within the EU.”
The government heads also granted Moldova candidate status and said Georgia could be next after meeting certain conditions. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen congratulated the leaders of three nations, tweeting that “your countries are part of our European family.”
“This decision strengthens us all,” von der Leyen said.
For the EU, the move opens a new era of eastern expansion that is brought with risks.
Moscow is intensifying pressure on European nations, cutting gas deliveries on its main pipeline to the region. Russia is also weaponizing food in its Black Sea blockade of Ukraine’s major ports, not allowing ships carrying Ukrainian grain from transiting through its key trade route.
The new applicants all have territorial conflicts with Moscow and Russian troops on their land.
While Russian dictator Vladimir Putin claimed in St. Petersburg on June 17 that he has nothing against Ukraine joining the EU because it’s not a military alliance, the bloc’s candidate status sends a strong message to Moscow.
Zelensky described Russia’s continuing aggression as a war “against the united Europe,” underscoring that the “most effective weapon” was unity. It is the bloc’s most crucial political step to help Kyiv, in addition to weapons and sanctions, he said.
The EU candidacy announcement comes as Russia’s war in Ukraine drags into the fourth month, killing tens of thousands and destroying once-peaceful cities to rubble. Fierce fighting continues in the eastern Donbas region, where both sides are facing significant casualties in the biggest battle on European soil since World War II.
Turkey has been a candidate state for 21 years and Ukraine is also expected to face plenty of hurdles, including many put there by Russia.
Though it’s a historic achievement for Ukraine to change the minds of many EU leaders who were concerned that the status would bring false promises, there is still a long journey ahead.
Kyiv’s politicians have repeatedly said that Ukraine is the only place in Europe where people are dying for the values on which the EU is based.
A recent survey by the European Parliament found that the Europeans' support for Ukraine’s EU membership is at a 15-year high though some member states still have reservations about reopening the bloc’s doors.
Support among the Ukrainians to join the bloc has jumped to 91% in a nationwide survey conducted in March, up from 61% in December.