European lawmakers and Ukrainian representatives unfurl a 30-meter-long Ukrainian flag outside the EU Parliament on June 23, the day Ukraine and Moldova were given official candidate status for the bloc.
BRUSSELS -- The European Union has formally agreed to take the “historic” step of making Ukraine and Moldova candidates for EU membership in the midst of the war in Ukraine and Moscow’s bitter denunciations of the two countries’ intentions.
European Council President Charles Michel announced the decision on June 23 at a summit in Brussels, calling it a historic moment.
"Today marks a crucial step on your path towards the EU," Michel said. "Our future is together."
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy also hailed Ukraine's EU candidacy status as "historic."
"Sincerely commend EU leaders’ decision at #EUCO to grant Ukraine a candidate status," he said on Twitter . "It’s a unique and historical moment in Ukraine-EU relations."
Zelenskiy had called for the EU to offer Ukraine a shortened membership procedure that he believed would be a “powerful response” to Russia’s unprovoked invasion. Georgia, which also applied for EU membership earlier this year, was recognized as a "perspective" member, Michel said on Twitter . The EU is "ready to grant candidate status as soon as the set priorities are met," Michel said.
The step sets in motion the complex process of accession to EU membership, something that Ukraine has ardently sought since applying for it less than a week after Moscow invaded on February 24. The war added urgency to Ukraine's cause, prompting the unusually rapid decision to grant candidate status.
"There can be no better sign of hope for the citizens of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia in these troubled times," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters.
"I am deeply convinced that our decision that we have taken today strengthens us all. It strengthens Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia in the face of Russian aggression," she said, adding that it "shows once again to the world that the European Union is united and strong in the face of external threats."
EU candidacy for Ukraine and Moldova had been at the top of the agenda at the summit.
"The European Council recognizes the European perspective of Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, and Georgia. The future of these countries and their citizens lies within the European Union," the latest draft of the final declaration of the summit, a copy of which RFE/RL has seen, says. "The progress of each country towards the European Union will depend on its own merit in meeting the Copenhagen criteria , taking into consideration the EU’s capacity to absorb new members," it adds.
The unprecedented move by the European body comes as Kyiv fights a devastating war against Russia, which launched an unprovoked invasion of its neighbor in February that has killed tens of thousands of people and caused huge material destruction.
Michel had urged the bloc's leaders to take the "historic" decision to grant candidate status to war-torn Ukraine and its neighbor Moldova.
"This is a decisive moment for the European Union, this is also a geopolitical choice that we will make today. And I'm confident that today, we will grant the candidate status to Ukraine and to Moldova," he told journalists in Brussels ahead of the summit. EU leaders will also aim to maintain pressure on Russia at the summit by committing to further work on sanctions, including a possible move to make gold among the assets that may be targeted by any future measures. The final draft also reiterates the bloc's call for investigations into possible war crimes committed in Ukraine and says the bloc remains "strongly committed" to providing further military support for Ukraine and to "swiftly work" on increasing such support.
"International humanitarian law, including on the treatment of prisoners of war, must be respected. Ukrainians, notably children, who have been forcibly removed to Russia must be immediately allowed to return safely," the document says.
"Russia, Belarus, and all those responsible for war crimes and the other most serious crimes will be held to account for their actions, in accordance with international law."
Before the main summit began on the afternoon on June 23, EU officials held a summit with leaders from the Western Balkans where they affirmed their commitment to admitting countries from the region, and called "for the acceleration of the accession process." EU and NATO member Bulgaria has been opposing Albania and North Macedonia's accession to the bloc because of historical, language, and cultural differences.
On June 23, Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama described the stalled accession process for Albania and North Macedonia as a "disgrace."
"It is a shame that a NATO country, Bulgaria, kidnaps two other NATO countries, Albania and North Macedonia, in the midst of a hot war in Europe's backyard with 26 other countries sitting still in a scary show of impotence," Rama said. "It's a good thing to give [Ukraine] candidate status, but I hope the Ukrainian people will not make many illusions about it," Rama said.