The European Union has agreed to make Ukraine a candidate for EU membership, setting in motion a process that could further distance the country from Russian influence and tie it even more closely to the West.
Ukraine applied for EU membership less than a week after Moscow’s February 24 invasion.
The decision by the leaders of the bloc of 27 countries to grant Ukraine candidate status on Thursday was uncharacteristically quick for the EU.
But the war and Ukraine’s request for an expedited review made her case urgent.
The EU has also granted candidate status to Moldova, which borders Ukraine.
Getting a membership can take years or even decades. Countries must meet a range of economic and political conditions, including adherence to the rule of law and other democratic principles.
Ukraine will have to curb government corruption and implement other reforms.
The European Parliament backed Ukraine’s bid hours before the summit, adopting a resolution calling on EU governments to “act without delay” and “justify their historic responsibility.”
“This will strengthen Ukraine, this will strengthen Europe. This is a decision in the name of freedom and democracy that puts us on the right side of history,” said European Parliament President Roberta Metsola ahead of the final announcement.
EU countries have united in supporting Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion with the help of money and weapons, passing unprecedented economic sanctions against the Kremlin.
Candidate status for EU membership does not automatically entitle you to join the bloc, nor does it provide immediate security guarantees.
However, once a country gains membership, it is subject to a clause in the EU treaty that states that if a member becomes the victim of armed aggression, other EU countries are obliged to help it by all possible means.
However, the main benefits of EU membership are economic in nature, as it gives access to a market of 450 million consumers with free movement of labour, goods, services and capital.
Ukraine, too, has long sought to join NATO, but the military alliance is reluctant to invite it, in part because of government corruption, shortcomings in the country’s defense establishment, and disputed borders.
Before the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO, which he denounced for its expansion eastward toward Russia’s flank.
But earlier this month, he appeared unfazed by Ukraine’s determination to move closer to the EU, saying it was not a military pact and therefore “we have no objection.”
The membership process can be long and painful.
Turkey, for example, applied for membership in 1987, received candidate status in 1999, and had to wait until 2005 to start negotiations on actual membership.
Over the years, only one of more than 30 negotiating “chapters” has been completed, and the whole process has stalled due to various disputes between the EU and Turkey.
Similarly, several Balkan countries have been unsuccessfully trying to join the EU for many years.
European officials said Ukraine had already adopted about 70% of EU rules and standards, but they also pointed to corruption and the need for deep political and economic reforms in the country.
“Significant efforts will be required, especially in fighting corruption and establishing an effective rule of law,” said Belgian Prime Minister Alexandre de Croo.
“But I am convinced that it is the (post-war) reconstruction of Ukraine that will provide an opportunity to take important steps forward.”