BRUSSELS — European Union leaders on Thursday agreed to make Ukraine a candidate for membership in the bloc, a symbolic win for Kyiv amid the war with Russia and another sign of how the conflict is reshaping the world.
Candidate status does not confer membership, which could still be decades away. But the decision is a historic step for Europe — and sends a signal to Moscow.
Heads of state and government, meeting in Brussels for a two-day European Council summit, also agreed to candidacy for Moldova. Ukraine and Moldova will both be required to meet certain conditions as candidates to move forward. Leaders said Georgia will become a candidate after meeting other conditions.
“This is a defining moment and a very good day for Europe,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at a news conference in Brussels. “It strengths Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in the face of Russian aggression and it strengthens the European Union.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the news. “Sincerely commend E.U. leaders’ decision,” he tweeted.
The Kremlin claims that Ukraine, a sovereign state, is not a real country and wants to bring it into Moscow’s sphere of influence by force. Vsevolod Chentsov, the head of Ukraine’s mission to the E.U., said a pathway to membership in the bloc sends the message that Ukraine is a very real country with a future of its choosing.
For Ukrainians worn out by months of fighting, E.U. candidate status is a “gesture of trust,” Chentsov said this week, and an indication that “the E.U. believes Ukraine can do this.”
Leaders, diplomats and officials expressed surprise that member states were finally able to agree on Ukraine, as well as Moldova and Georgia, after years of debate and deadlock.
“Just a few months ago, I was really skeptical that we would reach this position,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said Thursday. “I am very glad that we are there.”
An E.U. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said bloc leaders had moved more on enlargement in the last two weeks “than in the last 25 years.”
The decision comes as at a tough moment for Ukraine. Russian forces have made further gains south of the eastern city of Lysychansk, Ukrainian authorities said Thursday, reportedly causing defending forces to reposition to avoid being encircled.
The fall of the settlements of Loskutivka and Rai-Oleksandrivka followed Russia’s seizure of the strategic village of Toshkivka earlier in the week. Much of Lysychansk’s battered twin city of Severodonetsk is under Russian control as Moscow seeks to occupy the whole of Luhansk province.
Ukraine’s defense minister said Thursday that the country had received a batch of M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, commonly known as HIMARS, from the United States. The weapons will allow Ukrainian forces to launch multiple rockets at Russian artillery and forces rapidly and precisely, U.S. officials say.
The news from Brussels offered a morale boost for Ukrainians. “Ukraine will prevail. Europe will prevail,” Ukrainian Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba said in a video message.
“Today marks the beginning of a long journey that we will walk together,” he continued. “The Ukrainian people belong to the European family. Ukraine’s future is with the EU.”
Ukraine has long sought to join the EU. Days into the war, Zelensky pleaded for an expedited path to membership, casting candidacy as a matter of survival. While Baltic states and other eastern European countries backed the idea, many member states pushed back.
Through the spring, leaders from those countries appeared happy to pose with Zelensky, but hesitant to offer Ukraine a path to membership.
“None of the 27 would say right in the face of the president ‘no,’” Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine, told The Washington Post on a June 9 visit to Brussels. “But what is happening behind the scenes is clear willingness to put obstacles into the process.”
Zelensky pressed E.U. leaders to do more. Granting Ukraine candidate status would “prove that words about the longing of the Ukrainian people to be a part of the European family are not just words,” he said in a June 10 speech. The next day, von der Leyen made a surprise visit to Kyiv to finalize her assessment of the country’s candidacy.
As von der Leyen continued to tout Ukraine’s readiness, Ukrainian diplomats toured European capitals to keep the pressure on. Some holdouts, wary of being seen as standing in Ukraine’s way, began to downplay their previous skepticism.
Last week, the leaders of Germany, France and Italy visited Kyiv and voiced support for Ukrainian candidacy. The next day, the commission recommended candidate status. By the beginning of this week, E.U. diplomats were calling it a “done deal.”
But the same diplomats caution that there’s a long road ahead. The commission laid out six steps for Ukraine to meet before it can move forward. Among them: implementing laws to ensure the selection of qualified judges; limiting the influence of oligarchs; and improving its track record on investigations, prosecutions and convictions for corruption.
With fighting raging in Ukraine’s east, Ukrainian officials acknowledge that it will be difficult to move ahead with some reforms. “Inevitably there will be issues that should be tackled after the shooting stops,” Chentsov said.
The challenges are not limited to Ukraine. Though E.U. nations have decided to create a path to membership for three countries, appetite for enlargement remains modest. Member states, having made a symbolic gesture, might now look for ways to slow things down.
Turkey applied in 1987 and remains a candidate. Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia have all been in membership talks with the E.U. for years.
A draft of the summit’s conclusions obtained by The Washington Post suggests Ukrainian membership could depend on the “capacity” of the bloc “to absorb new members.” Some want to overhaul E.U. decision-making before letting any newcomers in.
If Ukraine joined now, it would become the fifth-most-populous member state, and by far the poorest. Ukraine’s per capita GDP last year was $4,872, less than half that of the current poorest member, Bulgaria, at $11,683, according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund.
Some countries, particularly in Western Europe, remain concerned that a large new member could further complicate decision-making and tip the balance of power toward Central and Eastern Europe.
Leaders planned to meet again Friday to discuss the impact of Russia’s war on the economy. Germany on Thursday raised the country’s alert level under its emergency gas plan as Russia squeezed deliveries to Europe.
World leaders, including President Biden, are scheduled to meet in Madrid next week for a NATO summit focused on the war in Ukraine and the future of the alliance.