European leaders formally approved Ukraine as a candidate to join the EU on Thursday, a daring geopolitical step prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but a reminder that the 27-nation bloc will require a significant revamp as it seeks to expand once more.
Although it could take Ukraine and neighbouring Moldova more than a decade to qualify for membership, the vote at a two-day EU summit signifies the bloc’s ambition to extend its influence deep into the former Soviet sphere.
“A momentous occasion,” tweeted European Council chief Charles Michel. “Today is an important milestone on your route to the EU,” he remarked, adding, “Our future is shared.”
The move, which also grants candidate status to Moldova, marks the beginning of the EU’s most ambitious expansion since it began accepting Eastern European republics after the Cold War.
Ivan Zichenko, a 34-year-old Ukrainian from the devastated city of Kharkiv who now resides in Brussels, commented, “Everyone in Ukraine is watching and waiting for this verdict.”
“It is of the utmost importance to boost their spirit,” he said as a few dozen protesters chanted “Ukraine is Europe” during a rally outside the EU leaders’ meeting location in Brussels.
Despite the rhetoric of triumph, there remains fear within the EU regarding the bloc’s ability to maintain cohesion as it continues to expand.
The European Union, which began in 1951 as an organisation of six countries to control industrial production, now has 27 members who face difficult concerns ranging from climate change and the growth of China to a war on their borders.
Russian President Vladimir Putin claims that the “special military operation” he initiated in Ukraine at the end of February was forced in part by Western incursions into what Russia views as its legitimate sphere of influence.
The EU’s approval “is a signal to Moscow that Ukraine and other countries from the former Soviet Union cannot belong to the Russian spheres of influence,” Ukraine’s EU ambassador told Reuters on Thursday morning.
“There are Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines who are calling home to inquire about their candidate status. It is astounding how essential it is to Ukrainians.”