EU grants Ukraine candidate status in 'historic' moment
European leaders on Thursday granted Ukraine the much-coveted status of official candidate to join their 27-nation union, in a bold geopolitical move hailed by Ukraine and the EU itself as a "historic decision"
Although it could take Ukraine more than a decade to eventually join the European Union, the decision to officially accept it as a candidate is a symbolic step that signals the bloc's intention to reach deep into the former Soviet Union.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine prompted Kyiv to formally apply for candidate status, and the EU to approve it unusually quickly.
Neighbouring Moldova was also granted candidate status while Georgia was told it would get the same once it has fulfilled more conditions.
The bloc's leaders stressed these countries will have much "homework" to do, and the EU itself will need to change how it works to be able to cope with yet another extension of the club.
"I am convinced that they (Ukraine and Moldova) will move as swiftly as possible and work as hard as possible to implement the necessary reforms," EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference.
The move, which also sees Moldova being granted candidate status, kick-starts the EU's most ambitious expansion since it welcomed Eastern European states after the Cold War.
Behind the triumphant rhetoric on granting Ukraine and Moldova candidate status, there is concern within the EU about how the bloc can remain coherent as it continues to enlarge.
French President Emmanuel Macron reacted to the Commission's decision not to recommend giving the candidate status to Georgia, saying he remained hopeful Tbilisi could conduct the reforms requested by the EU executive.
"I think that political unity must be built around this will and that reforms should be conducted. It is within reach," he said.
The Commission said on June 17 the Caucasian country needed to meet certain conditions before it can be granted the status of European Union membership candidate.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Thursday declared the EU's move to accept Ukraine as a candidate for accession as a victory and promised not to rest until Russia's defeat and full membership had been secured.
"This is a victory," a smiling Zelenskiy said in a brief video posted released by his office, noting Ukraine had waited 30 years for this moment.
"We can defeat the enemy, rebuild Ukraine, join the EU, and then we can rest," he said in a low voice.
"Or perhaps we won't rest at all - our children would take offence. But without any doubt, we will win."
Andriy Yermak, Zelenskiy's chief of staff, said Kyiv would quickly implement the plan needed for accession talks to begin.
But a summit of European Union and Balkan leaders failed on Thursday to break a deadlock over a stalled EU membership bid by North Macedonia and Albania.
Separate from the Ukraine decision later on Thursday, the leaders of the six Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia expressed disillusion that negotiations have not started or are stalled, years after being promised eventual EU membership.
"What has happened is a serious blow to the credibility (of) the European Union," Dimitar Kovacevski, North Macedonia's prime minister, told a news conference following the Balkan-EU summit, referring to the lack of progress.
At the summit, the EU restated its promise made almost two decades ago to give the Balkan countries membership once they enacted deep economic, judicial and political reforms.
But EU member Bulgaria's veto has remained in place since 2020 when it blocked accession talks with North Macedonia over a dispute relating to history and language. Albania is also being held back because the EU has linked its progress to that of North Macedonia.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said that was a "disgrace" and also accused EU leaders of "impotence" for failing to pressure Sofia into making concessions.
"Watching this European Union be incapable to liberate two hostages, like Albania and North Macedonia, from Bulgaria. It doesn't make a good impression and in this regard, yes, it was a historic day, but historic in the negative sense," Rama told reporters.
"Let's say the truth. Bulgaria is a disgrace, but it's not simply Bulgaria. The reason is the crooked spirit of the enlargement is totally crooked spirit. And Bulgaria is its most stunning expression. The enlargement spirit has gone from a shared vision of an entire community to the kidnapping vehicle of individual member states," Rama added.
However, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, who represented his country despite losing a confidence vote on Wednesday, said he hoped for support for North Macedonia in the Bulgarian parliament soon, without giving more details.
Balkan citizens have long dreamed of joining the EU after the ethnic wars of the 1990s, as Yugoslavia disintegrated.
But northern countries such as France and the Netherlands have stalled the EU's "enlargement" process, fearing a repeat of the rushed accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 and the poorly managed migration of eastern European workers to Britain that turned many Britons against the EU.