By ABC News/Wires
EUROPEAN Union leaders have formally accepted Ukraine as a candidate to join the 27-nation bloc, a bold geopolitical move hailed by Ukraine and the EU itself as a “historic moment”.
Although it could take Ukraine and neighbouring Moldova more than a decade to qualify for membership, the decision at a two-day EU summit is a symbolic step that signals the bloc’s intention to reach deep into the former Soviet Union.
“Ukraine will prevail. Europe will prevail. Today marks the beginning of a long journey that we will walk together,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said.
The EU leaders’ unusually quick decision to give Ukraine candidate status was triggered by Russia’s invasion.
EU leaders stressed, however, that the bloc will need a major overhaul of its decision-making process before it can enlarge again — and that Ukraine and Moldova will have much “homework” to do.
“I am convinced that they will move as swiftly as possible and work as hard as possible to implement the necessary reforms, EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the EU’s decision as “a unique and historic moment”, tweeting: “Ukraine’s future is in the EU.”
Behind the triumphant rhetoric, however, there is concern within the EU about how the bloc can remain coherent as it continues to enlarge.
After starting in 1951 as an organisation of six countries to regulate industrial production, the EU now has 27 members that face complex challenges from climate change and the rise of China, to a war on their own doorstep.
Russian President Vladimir Putin says his “special military operation” launched in Ukraine in late February was partly necessitated by Western encroachment into what Russia characterises as its rightful geographical sphere of influence.
The EU’s green light “is a signal to Moscow that Ukraine, and also other countries from the former Soviet Union, cannot belong to the Russian spheres of influence”, Ukraine’s EU ambassador Chentsov Vsevolod told Reuters earlier on Thursday.
Ukraine’s path to membership could take years
Once a country gains membership, it is covered under an EU treaty clause that says, if a member falls victim to armed aggression, the other EU countries are obligated to assist it by all the means in their power.
The main benefits of EU membership, though, are economic, since it gives access to a market of 450 million consumers with free movement of labour, goods, services and capital.
Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month did not seem bothered by Ukraine’s determination to get closer to the EU, saying it is not a military pact and, thus, “we have no objections”.
The EU’s leaders also also agreed on Thursday to recognise a “European perspective” for yet another former Soviet republic, Georgia.
European Council President Charles Michel said the EU will be ready to approve its candidate status once “outstanding priorities” are addressed.
Poland’s Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki — who supports Ukraine’s European aspirations — said on Twitter: “This is a great moment for Europe’s unity and for the defence of its basic values. The struggle for freedom goes on.”
The membership process can be long and tortuous.
Turkey, for example, applied for membership in 1987, received candidate status in 1999, and had to wait until 2005 to start talks for actual entry.
Only one of more than 30 negotiating “chapters” has been completed in the years since, and the whole process is at a standstill as a result of various disputes between the EU and Turkey.
Similarly, several Balkan countries have been seeking without success for many years to join the EU.
European officials have said that Ukraine has already adopted about 70 per cent of the EU rules and standards, but they also have pointed to corruption and the need for deep political and economic reforms in the country.
Top: The EU started as an organisation of six countries, and has grown to 27 nations. Photo: Supplied by Ukrainian Presidential Press Service
First insert: EU leaders from France, Germany and Italy visited the Ukrainian city of Irpin to survey the damage brought by Russia’s invasion.Photo: AP/ Ludovic Marin and published by ABC News
Second insert: Fact box by Getty Images and published by BBC
Front Page: Ukrainians waited outside the EU summit building for the leaders to decide on their country’s status. Photo courtesy of Promote Ukraine and published by BBC