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Ukraine – the country which Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded claiming it was not a real country – is now officially a candidate country for membership of the European Union.
In a historic move towards the biggest expansion of EU membership in nearly two decades, the 27 Heads of State and Government of the European Council formally granted candidate status to Ukraine, along with to neighboring Moldova, towards the end of the first day of a two-day summit in Brussels.
“This is a historic moment, which allows us to define the contours of the European Union”, declared the President of the European Council Charles Michel a few moments after the vote, during a press conference with the President of the Commission. European Union Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country now holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU.
“It’s a very defining moment and a very good day for Europe today,” said von der Leyen.
“Well, that’s all been said,” Macron began, before devoting another four minutes of praise and explanation to the decisions taken by the European Council. “Over the past week, we’ve come on leaps and bounds,” he said.
But EU leaders’ enthusiasm for taking such a bold step has been overshadowed by the deep and seething anger expressed by some leaders of Western Balkan countries over the long delays their membership applications have suffered. met. Bulgaria’s long-standing obstruction of North Macedonia, which is eager to start formal membership talks, arouses particular bitterness. This requires the unanimous approval of all 27 capitals.
In the conclusions of its summit, the European Council sought to clarify the status of some of these candidates, including North Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Leaders squabbled over the text, particularly over Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was eventually told it could receive candidate status if it carried out reforms in 14 policy areas.
But overall, the protracted and sometimes tortured talks on the Western Balkans have only underscored the long road and uncertain timeline facing all EU candidates, as well as the difficult process that awaits Ukraine. and Moldova.
The designation of candidate status for Ukraine, a country actively at war, occupied in many areas by Russian forces and at serious risk of losing large swathes of territory, represented a remarkable risk for the EU – itself a self-proclaimed peace project – and also a blunt refutation of the Kremlin’s efforts to recreate the Soviet sphere of influence.
This historic decision immediately lifted the spirits of Ukraine and Moldova, and it was widely applauded in Kyiv and Chișinău, as well as in both countries. Immediately after the vote, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the European Council via video link and personally thanked each leader.
His presentation was a very intentional echo of a powerful speech he gave in March, calling on all of them to help Ukraine, and calling on some of them not to do enough. But on Thursday his remarks were one of unvarnished gratitude, and some leaders who had been criticized at the time received nothing but heartfelt praise this time around.
“Germany is for us,” Zelenskyy said, addressing German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. “Thank you Olaf! Thank you for your support at a crucial time.
Even Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who had been scathingly criticized for his intimacy with Putin and for weeks for obstructing EU plans to sanction Russian oil, received only kindness. “Hungary is for us,” Zelenskyy said. “Thank you, Prime Minister, thank you, Viktor, together we are capable of much more than alone!”
A screenshot of the Ukrainian president addressing EU leaders posted on his website showed him wearing a branded olive green t-shirt with a yellow and blue flag patch on the left shoulder that read “The Ukraine in the fight”. In the photo, Zelensky beams with happiness, his hands clasped in a combined gesture of thanks and victory.
Thursday’s proceedings kicked off with a meeting between EU leaders and Western Balkan leaders, but the conversation quickly turned sour, with guests expressing fury at what they described as an unfair and disrespectful blockade of their applications for membership.
“What is happening now is a serious problem and a serious blow to the credibility of the European Union,” North Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski told reporters after the meeting.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has denigrated the whole enlargement process. “Bulgaria is a disgrace, but it’s not just Bulgaria,” Rama said. “The reason is the twisted mind of the enlargement – its totally twisted mind.”
The angry and emotional interventions prompted Michel to change the agenda for the European Council summit. Instead of moving immediately to a vote on candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova – which would have yielded a quick and positive result – Michel launched a roundtable on the Western Balkans, including a difficult debate on Bosnia- Herzegovina. His aim seemed to be to show genuine concern about the complaints raised in the morning session before giving Ukraine and Moldova cause for celebration.
But as the chatter dragged on in the late afternoon and evening, panic began to mount among some officials in Chișinău and Kyiv, who feared that a surprise obstacle had emerged and their candidacies would be blocked. Those fears, however, proved unfounded as the executives ended their conversation with an expected thumbs-up.
Scholz quickly tweeted: “27 times yes! Congratulations to #Ukraine and #Moldova: the European Council welcomes two new candidates for EU membership. Good cooperation within the European family!
While Ukraine and Moldova celebrated, Georgia, on the other hand, was disappointed. The South Caucasian country, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008, applied for membership along with Ukraine and Moldova shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. But the European Commission said the country’s political dysfunction was too great to merit candidate status. Instead, Georgia was given a “European perspective” and, like Bosnia and Herzegovina, was asked to carry out reforms.
“The candidate status for Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova is an important step towards European integration,” said Anton Hofreiter, Chairman of the European Affairs Committee of the German Bundestag. “The decision in favor of candidate status is far from a victory over Putin, but it is a victory for all of us,” he added.
Putin, in a speech in late February before ordering the full-scale invasion that failed to capture Kyiv, had sought to deny that Ukraine was a real country. “Ukraine never had its own authentic state,” he said. “There has never been a sustainable state in Ukraine.”
Zelenskyy, addressing the European Council via video link after Thursday’s vote, told the leaders they had achieved something remarkable.
“Today you adopted one of the most important decisions for Ukraine during the 30 years of independence of our state,” he said. “However, I believe that this decision is not only for Ukraine. It is the biggest step towards the strengthening of Europe that can be taken at this time, in our time and under such difficult conditions, as the Russian war tests our ability to preserve freedom and unity.
“On the fifth day of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, we asked to join the European Union,” Zelenskyy continued. “We provided extremely fast and high quality responses to the questionnaire we received from the European Commission. And here is the desired result today. Today I would like to reaffirm that Ukraine is capable of becoming a full member of the European Union.
Giorgio Leali and Camille Gijs contributed reporting.