European leaders will formally agree on Thursday to Ukraine as a candidate for membership of the European Uniona bold geopolitical move sparked by Russia’s invasion of the country, but a reminder that the 27-nation bloc will need a major overhaul as it seeks to expand again.
Although Ukraine and neighboring Moldova could take more than a decade to meet the membership requirements, the decision of the two-day Brussels summit will be a symbolic step signaling the bloc’s intention to reach deep into the old one Soviet Union.
“Today the EU sends a message of solidarity to the Ukrainian people: they belong to the European family, they belong to the EU,” Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said upon arrival at the summit.
The move will kick-start the EU’s most ambitious expansion since it took in Eastern European states after the Cold War.
“All the people of Ukraine are watching and waiting for this decision,” said Ivan Zichenko, a 34-year-old Ukrainian from the war-torn city of Kharkov, who now lives in Brussels.
“It is very, very important to boost their morale,” he said as dozens of people chanted “Ukraine is Europe” at a rally outside the Brussels building where EU leaders were meeting.
However, behind the triumphalist rhetoric, there is concern in the EU about how the bloc can remain coherent and united while continuing to enlarge.
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.
The Russian President, Vladimir Putinsays its “special military operation” launched in Ukraine in late February was necessitated in part by the West’s encroachment on what Russia considers its legitimate geographic sphere of influence.
The expected green light from the EU “is a signal to Moscow that Ukraine, and also other countries of the former Soviet Union, cannot belong to Russian spheres of influence,” Ukraine’s ambassador to the bloc, Chentsov, told Reuters. Vsevolod.
“There are Ukrainian soldiers calling home from the front line and asking: what about our candidate status? It’s unbelievable how important it is to the Ukrainians,” he added.
While Ukraine and Moldova are expected to be ushered into the EU waiting room, Georgia will be given “a European perspective” but will be told that it must meet conditions before gaining candidate status.
Reluctance to enlargement has slowed progress towards accession by a group of Balkan countries —Albanian, bosnian, Kosovo, Montenegrin, North Macedonia Y Serbian—, whose leaders met on Thursday morning with their EU counterparts in Brussels.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said upon arriving at a meeting with EU leaders ahead of the bloc’s summit: “Welcome to Ukraine, it is good to give it candidate status, but I hope that the Ukrainian people will not delusions”.
A draft of the summit declaration showed that EU leaders would once again give “full and unequivocal commitment to the prospect of EU membership of the Western Balkans.”
However, Ukraine’s fast track to formal candidate status has only served to increase its sense of being sidelined, putting the EU at risk of Russia and China extending their influence into the region.