European leaders are poised to grant Ukraine candidate status, in a historic decision that opens the door to EU membership for the war-torn country and deals a blow to Vladimir Putin.
EU leaders meeting in Brussels are expected to approve Ukraine’s candidate status later on Thursday, nearly four months after President Volodymyr Zelenskiy launched his country’s bid to join the bloc in the early days of the Russian invasion.
The move from applicant to candidate usually takes years, but the EU has dramatically accelerated the process, amid outrage over the brutality of the unprovoked Russian attack, and to show solidarity with Ukraine’s defenders.
“Ukraine is going through hell for a simple reason: its desire to join the EU,” tweeted the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, on the eve of the summit. The commission last week called on EU leaders to grant Ukraine’s candidate status. “Our opinion acknowledges the immense progress that [Ukrainian] democracy has achieved since the Maidan protests of 2014,” Von der Leyen said.
Welcoming the expected positive decision, Zelenskiy said: “This is like going into the light from the darkness.”
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said candidate status would “draw a line under decades of ambiguity and set it in stone: Ukraine is Europe, not part of the ‘Russian world’”.
Speaking of the candidate status decision, Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU, Vsevolod Chentsov, said earlier this week that the EU had moved at “lightning speed” by its standards.
“We need this clarity [on EU membership] to support the Ukrainian army, Ukrainian society, morally, psychologically, and to get the clear feeling and understanding of the direction of movement for Ukraine,” he said.
Ukraine has been seeking EU membership since the 2004 “orange revolution” and more emphatically since the 2013-14 Maidan protests, when the pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted after he refused to sign an association agreement with the bloc. But before the war, EU membership was off the table for the country of 41 million people that is plagued by corruption.
When Zelenskiy announced Ukraine’s EU membership bid, many countries in western Europe were sceptical. Senior officials counted 10 member states that opposed candidate status for Ukraine, but the mood has shifted, as leaders feared being on the wrong side of history.
EU capitals also know membership talks will take many years. The process can go into reverse, if a future Kyiv government fails to implement reforms on the rule of law and aligning its economy to EU standards.
A draft copy of the summit conclusions seen by the Guardian states that the progress of a candidate country will depend on “its own merit” but also “taking into consideration the EU’s capacity to absorb new members”.
Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has said that the EU must “reform its internal procedures” to prepare for new members, calling for greater use of qualified majority votes in areas such as foreign policy, to end one country blocking a decision.
France is one of several countries that opposes giving up its veto over foreign policy decisions.
EU leaders are also expected to grant EU candidate status to Moldova, the former Soviet country of 3.5 million that has experienced a surge in tensions since the Russian invasion of its neighbour. Georgia is expected to be granted a “European perspective”, a rung on the ladder below candidate status. Along with Moldova, Georgia filed an application to join the EU soon after the Russian invasion, but Brussels is concerned about Tbilisi’s backsliding on the rule of law and press freedom.