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Ukraine and Moldova move closer to EU membership after historic vote

by Anthony L. Gonzalez

European Union leaders have formally accepted Ukraine as a candidate to join the EU, a bold geopolitical move triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but a reminder that the 27-member bloc needs a major overhaul as it seems to be expanding again.

While it could take over a decade for Ukraine and neighboring Moldova to qualify for membership, the decision at a two-day EU summit is a symbolic step that signals the bloc’s intentions to penetrate the former Soviet Union.

“A historic moment,” tweeted Charles Michel, the President of the European Council.

“Today marks a crucial step on your path to the EU,” he said, adding: “Our future is together.”

Ukraine and Moldova move closer to EU membership

The move, which also saw Moldova gain candidate status, marked the start of the EU’s most ambitious enlargement since it welcomed Eastern European countries after the Cold War.

“All the people in Ukraine are watching and waiting for this decision,” said Ivan Zichenko, a 34-year-old Ukrainian from the destroyed city of Kharkiv, who now lives in Brussels.

“It’s very important to raise their morale,” he said as several dozen people chanted “Ukraine is Europe” at a rally outside the Brussels building where EU leaders met.

Behind the triumphant rhetoric, however, lies concern within the EU about how the bloc can remain coherent as it expands.

Starting in 1951 as an organization of six countries to regulate industrial production, the EU now has 27 members facing complex challenges, from climate change and the rise of China to a war on their own doorstep.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says his “special military operation,” launched in Ukraine in late February, was necessitated in part by NATO’s encroachment on what characterizes Russia as its legitimate geographic sphere of influence.

The EU green light “signals to Moscow that Ukraine, as well as other countries from the former Soviet Union, cannot belong to the Russian sphere of influence,” Ukraine’s EU ambassador Chentsov Vsevolod told Reuters on Thursday.

“There are Ukrainian soldiers who call home from the front lines and ask: what will happen to our candidate status? It’s amazing how important it is to the Ukrainian people.”

While Ukraine and Moldova were expected to be welcomed into the EU’s waiting room, Georgia was given “a European perspective”. Still, it was told it had to meet conditions before it could be granted candidate status.

Reluctance over EU enlargement has slowed progress towards membership for a group of Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia – whose leaders met their EU counterparts in Brussels on Thursday morning.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, when he arrived at a meeting with EU leaders ahead of the bloc’s summit, said: “Welcome to Ukraine, it is a good thing to give candidate status, but I hope the Ukrainian people won’t have many illusions about this.”

A draft of the summit’s statement showed that EU leaders will renew “full and unequivocal commitment to the EU membership perspective of the Western Balkans”.

But Ukraine’s fast track to formal candidate status has only left them sidelined, putting the EU at risk of Russia and China extending their influence into the Balkans.

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