EU leaders have accepted Ukraine and Moldova as candidates to join the bloc, opening a path to membership that’s likely to take a number of years.
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that it was a historic moment and a “good day for Europe”.
“Your countries are part of our European family,” she posted.
Ukraine’s President Voldymyr Zelenskyy called it “one of the most important decisions” in Ukraine‘s history as an independent state.
He also said it was the “biggest step towards strengthening Europe that could be taken right now”, and in a statement thanked each EU leader individually.
‘Our future is within the EU’, says Zelenskyy – live Ukraine updates
The move is likely to anger Russia, which has opposed the prospect of Ukraine joining and becoming closer with the West.
Ukraine applied less than a week after it was invaded in February, and its candidacy has been fast-tracked.
Leaders of the EU countries approved the move at a special summit in Brussels.
Ms von der Leyen said the decision “strengthens Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, in the face of Russian imperialism”.
“And it strengthens the EU,” she added, “because it shows once again to the world that we are united and strong in the face of external threats.”
Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu, also hailed a historic moment for her tiny landlocked nation – which borders Ukraine.
She said there was a “difficult road ahead” but that it offered “more prosperity, more opportunities and more order”. The country is among the poorest in Europe.
Georgia also on road to become 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 recognised “the European perspective of Georgia and is ready to grant candidate status once the 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 political sphere, including a commitment to the rule of law and other democratic principles.
Ukraine will have to cut government corruption and enact other reforms.
It’s unclear how long the process will take. Turkey, for instance, got candidate status in 1999, but its application has been held up by various disputes.
The three countries “all have work to do before moving to the next stage of the process”, said Ms von der Leyen, adding that she knows “they will move swiftly”.
If a country joins the EU, it is protected by a treaty clause that requires other members to help if it’s attacked.
Many in Ukraine have long had hopes of moving away from Moscow’s influence and joining the EU.
The 2013-14 Euromaidan protests in the country were sparked by former president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to reject the signing of an agreement of political association and free trade with the EU.
Ukraine also aspires to join the NATO, which is separate to the EU, but that’s currently a remote prospect and President Vladimir Putin has demanded it never be allowed to become a member of the military alliance.