EU leaders have accepted Ukraine and Moldova as candidates to join the bloc, opening a path to membership that is likely to take several years.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen he tweeted that it was a historic moment and a “good day for Europe”.

“Your countries are part of our European family,” he posted.

president of ukraine Voldymyr Zelenskiy called it “one of the most important decisions” in UkraineThe history of as an independent state.

He also said it was the “biggest step towards strengthening Europe that could be taken at this time”, and in a statement he thanked each EU leader individually.

‘Our future is within the EU,’ says Zelensky – live updates from Ukraine

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Zelenskyy welcomes EU candidacy

The move is likely to anger Russia, which has opposed the prospect of Ukraine joining and drawing closer to the West.

Ukraine applied less than a week after being invaded in Februaryand his candidacy has been accelerated.

The leaders of the EU countries approved the measure at a special summit in Brussels.

Von der Leyen said the decision “strengthens Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia against Russian imperialism.”

“And it strengthens the EU,” he added, “because it shows the world once again that we are united and strong against external threats.”

Moldova’s President Maia Sandu also hailed a historic moment for her tiny landlocked nation, which borders Ukraine.

He said there was a “difficult road ahead”, but one that offered “more prosperity, more opportunity and more order”. The country is one of the poorest in Europe.

European lawmakers and Ukrainian representatives unfurl a 30 meter long Ukrainian flag in front of the EU Parliament
A 30m Ukrainian flag was unfurled in front of the EU Parliament in Brussels

Georgia also on track to become a candidate

European Council President Charles Michel tweeted that a third country was also taking steps to join the union, the former Soviet state Georgia.

He said the council had recognized “Georgia’s European perspective and is ready to grant candidate status once outstanding priorities are addressed.”

“Congratulations to the Georgian people. A historic moment in EU-Georgia relations: Georgia’s future lies within the EU,” he said.

Candidates must meet standards on the state of their economy and politics, including a commitment to the rule of law and other democratic principles.

Ukraine will have to reduce government corruption and enact other reforms.

It is unclear how long the process will take. Turkey, for example, obtained candidate status in 1999, but its application has been delayed by various disputes.

All three countries “have work to do before moving to the next stage of the process,” Ms von der Leyen said, adding that she knows they “will move quickly.”

People in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, demonstrated this week in support of joining the EU.  Photo: AP
People in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, demonstrated this week in support of joining the EU. Photo: AP

If a country joins the EU, it is protected by a clause in the treaty that requires other members to help if it is attacked.

Many in Ukraine have long hoped to break away from Moscow’s influence and join the EU.

The 2013-14 Euromaidan protests in the country were sparked by former President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to reject signing a free trade and political association agreement with the EU.

Ukraine also aspires to join NATO, which is separate from the EU, but that is currently a remote prospect and President Vladimir Putin has demanded that it never be allowed to become a member of the military alliance.

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