As Russia continues to make worrying gains in its brutal war in Ukraine, the European Union accepted the beleaguered nation as a candidate for membership. In its annual summit, the powerful bloc signed off on Ukraine and neighboring Moldova’s candidacy, meaning both of the countries in Russia’s closest sights will jump several steps to be considered EU candidates, despite not meeting all the requirements for full membership.
European Commission president Charles Michel tweeted the news moments after all 27 member states voted in favor of what is a first for the bloc. “EUCO has just decided EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova,” he announced. “A historic moment. Today marks a crucial step on your path towards the EU. Congratulations @ZelenskyyUa and @sandumaiamd and the people of Ukraine... our future is together.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had earlier given her group’s full-throated support ahead of the two-day summit that kicked off in Brussels Thursday. But the final decision had to be ratified by all 27 member states.
“We all know that Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective, we want them to live with us, the EU,” she said, acknowledging that candidacy does not provide Ukraine or Moldova with EU funds until and unless the nations meet vital reforms. “We expect these reforms to be done, if so, then it's merit-based, and then there's movement forward.”
European Union candidacy is a largely symbolic gesture both as a way for the bloc to support its vulnerable neighbor and to send a message to Russia. But the fact remains that before the war, Ukraine would likely have had to wait a decade or more for candidacy status. And a number of European countries have no intention of allowing that candidacy to turn into full membership easily.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Wednesday he will support the candidacy, but that the EU itself has a lot of work to do before it can give membership so “countries like Ukraine.” Speaking to the Bundestag before the summit, Scholz said, “I will make every effort at the European Council to ensure that the entire EU gives an unanimous ‘yes’ to Ukraine and Moldova’s membership candidacy bids while demanding that the EU must also be made capable of taking on new members.”
Italy is also facing internal strife over continuing its support of supplying weapons and other military hardware do the war torn nation. On Tuesday, the Five Star movement imploded over continued support of Ukraine militarily, and by Thursday, the fissures had grown with some major party members threatening to pull out of the ruling coalition under Mario Draghi if unhindered support continues.
On Thursday, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky—who has received a number of high-level European delegations in Kyiv since the war began—urged the EU heads of state meeting to remember that his country’s future is in their hands.
“Today or tomorrow, and I know you know this, we have a big chance to receive a candidate status for EU membership,” he said in an online address. “Ukraine has made its own choice, a future closer to the European Union and soon we will be part of that family. We have sacrificed a lot for that.”
Zelensky also acknowledged that European membership does not mean an end to hostilities. “We understand very clearly that our neighbor is Russia, and that Russia, even if we finish the war and we win, in 10 or 20 years Russia may attack us again,” he said.