BRUSSELS – The European Union formally presented Ukraine as a candidate for membership on Thursday, signaling in the face of a devastating Russian military attack that it sees Ukraine’s future in the bosom of the democratic West.
While Ukraine’s entry into the bloc may take a decade or more, the decision sends a strong message of solidarity to Kyiv and a rebuke to Moscow, which has worked for more than a decade to prevent Ukraine from building Western ties.
The move was seen as nearly impossible a few weeks ago, not least because Ukraine was considered too late in terms of rooting out corruption and instituting economic reforms.
But the decision to nonetheless grant her candidate status was another leap for European countries that quickly abandoned prejudices and reservations to support Ukraine in the face of a Russian invasion.
“Agreement” Charles Michel, President of the European Council, He said on Twitter. “Historic moment. Today marks a decisive step on your path towards the European Union.”
The EU candidacy, which the 27 EU leaders also awarded to Moldova, is a milestone but little else. It indicates that the country is in a position, if certain conditions are met, to begin a very detailed and painstaking process of years of changes and negotiations with the bloc, with a view to eventual accession.
When this can happen depends on the readiness of the country concerned, which must be institutionally, democratically, economically and legally aligned with EU laws and standards. On average, the process took about 10 years from other countries; Turkey has been a candidate for 21 years, but it is unlikely to join.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the EU’s move “one of the most important decisions for Ukraine” in its 30 years as an independent country.
“This is the greatest step towards strengthening Europe that can be taken now, in our time, precisely in the context of the Russian war, which is testing our ability to preserve freedom and unity,” Zelensky wrote on Telegram.
The European Union began in 1952 as a free trade bloc between the six core nations. It has grown over the years to include not only vast swathes of the European continent, but also to include policies that go far beyond trade and economics, although these are still the strongest and best types of joint action.
The war in Ukraine has forced the European Union to engage in foreign policy, defense and military alignment, areas it is uncomfortable politically and legally ill-equipped to address. Although there is no alternative to NATO, the bloc could evolve in the coming years – by the time Ukraine actually joins – into a military union.
The leaders of Germany, France and Italy, the EU’s largest, made a preliminary presentation of the decision to grant candidate status to Ukraine on a visit last week to its capital, Kyiv. However, a few member states need to be convinced that although Ukraine is not ready to join the union, it is necessary to give him the possibility.
As important as the moment is for Ukraine, it is very important for the European Union as well. Most members were eager to prevent the bloc from growing, in part because its 27 members already sometimes find it very difficult to agree on key issues such as democratic freedoms, economic reforms and the role of the courts.
The bloc nearly doubled in size in the decade from 2004 to 2014, adding 13 members, many of them from poorer ex-Soviet countries that quickly gained access to the bloc’s richer, more abundantly funded labor markets.
And this integration remains incomplete, with many countries grappling with corruption, rule of law issues, and economic decline. This calls into question the bloc’s ability to accommodate a country the size and population of Ukraine.
Some European countries would also have liked to see Albania, North Macedonia, and the Balkan states that had been candidates for more than a decade, accepted before Ukraine. Leaders of Western Balkan countries met with their EU counterparts earlier on Thursday, but the meeting yielded no progress.
The move to award Ukraine’s candidacy is bound to infuriate Russia, which has described Ukraine’s aspirations to join Western institutions such as NATO and the European Union as a provocation and intrusion into its sphere of influence.