Brussels (AFP) – The European Union agreed on Thursday to put Ukraine on the path to joining the European Union, working with unusual speed and unity to pull the beleaguered country away from Russia’s influence and link it more closely to the West.
During a meeting at the Brussels summit, the leaders of the 27 European Union countries mobilized the unanimous consent required to grant Ukraine candidate status. This starts the membership process that can take years or even decades.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted his gratitude and declared: “The future of Ukraine is within the European Union.”
“It is a victory. We have waited 120 days and 30 years,” he said on Instagram, referring to the duration of the war and the decades that have passed since Ukraine’s independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. “And now we will defeat the enemy.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared this “a good day for Europe”.
The European Union also gave candidate status to a small country, Moldova, another former Soviet republic on the border with Ukraine.
Ukraine applied for membership less than a week after the invasion of Moscow on February 24. Thursday’s decision was unusually fast for the EU and its slow approach to expansion. But the war and Ukraine’s request to consider the fast track gave the country’s case urgency.
To obtain 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 rein in entrenched government corruption and adopt other reforms.
The European Parliament approved Ukraine’s request hours before the summit began, and passed a resolution calling on EU governments to “act without delay” and “fulfill their historical responsibility”.
You will strengthen Ukraine, you will strengthen Europe. “It is a decision for freedom and democracy and it puts us on the right side of history,” European Parliament President Roberta Mezzola said before the final decision.
The countries of the European Union united in supporting Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion with money and weapons, and adopted unprecedented economic sanctions against the Kremlin.
EU candidate status does not give an automatic right to join the bloc nor does it provide any immediate security guarantees.
However, once a country obtains membership, it is covered by the EU treaty clause which states that if a member falls victim to armed aggression, other EU countries are obligated to help it by all means at their disposal.
However, the main benefits of EU membership are economic, as it allows access to a market of 450 million consumers with free movement of labour, goods, services and capital.
Ukraine has long aspired to join NATO as well, but the military alliance is not about to offer an invitation, in part due to government corruption, shortcomings in the country’s defense establishment, and its disputed borders.
Before the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO, which he condemned for spreading eastward toward the Russian flank. But earlier this month, he did not appear to be alarmed by Ukraine’s determination to move closer to the European Union, saying it was not a military agreement, and therefore “we have no objections.”
On Thursday, EU leaders also agreed to recognize the “European perspective” of another former Soviet republic, Georgia. European Council President Charles Michel said the EU would be ready to agree to its status as a candidate once “pending priorities” are addressed.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, whose country has been a staunch supporter of Ukraine’s European aspirations for years, said on Twitter: “This is a great moment for the unity of Europe and the defense of its core values. The struggle for freedom continues.”
The membership process can be long and tortuous.
Turkey, for example, applied for membership in 1987, gained candidate status in 1999, and had to wait until 2005 to start talks for actual accession. Only one of the more than 30 negotiating “chapters” was completed in the ensuing years, and the whole process stalled as a result of various disagreements between the EU and Turkey.
Likewise, many Balkan countries have sought for many years to join the European Union unsuccessfully.
European officials said Ukraine has already adopted about 70% of EU rules and standards, but they also point to corruption and the need for deep political and economic reforms in the country.
“Great efforts will be needed, particularly in the fight against corruption and the establishment of an effective rule of law,” said Belgian Prime Minister Alexandre de Croo. “But I am convinced that it is precisely the (post-war) reconstruction of Ukraine that will provide opportunities to take important steps forward.”
Follow the Associated Press’ coverage of the war on https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine