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European leaders give Ukraine coveted EU candidate status

Protestors hold signs and EU and Ukrainian flags during a demonstration in support of Ukraine outside of an EU summit in Brussels, on June 23.Olivier Matthys/Associated Press

BRUSSELS — European leaders decided Thursday to make Ukraine a candidate for membership of the European Union, a historically important signaling that the country, while now in the throes of war and far from ready to join the bloc, ultimately belongs in it.

The step was seen as impossible mere weeks ago, not least because Ukraine is seen as too far behind in terms of corruption and economic overhauls to be able to join. But the decision to nonetheless give it the coveted candidate status, as a symbolically important gesture, was another leap for European nations that have been rapidly shedding preconceptions and qualms to back Ukraine in the face of Russia’s invasion, often at great cost to themselves.

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“Agreement,” Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said on Twitter. “A historic moment. Today marks a crucial step on your path towards the EU.”

Candidacy in the European Union, which the 27 EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday also decided to grant to Moldova, is a milestone but little else. It signals that a nation is in position, if certain conditions are met, to begin a detailed, painstaking, and yearslong process of changes and negotiations with the bloc, with a view to eventually joining.

When that might happen depends on the readiness of the country in question, which must align itself institutionally, democratically, economically, and legally to EU laws and norms. On average, the process has taken other countries about 10 years. Turkey has been a candidate for 21 years but is unlikely to join.

The EU began in 1952 as a free-trade bloc among a core six nations. It has grown through the years not only to include huge swaths of the European continent, but also to encompass policies far beyond trade and economics, although those remain its strongest and best-aligned types of joint work.

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The war in Ukraine has forced the EU into foreign policy, defense, and military alignment, areas that it is politically uncomfortable with and legally underqualified to address. Although no substitute for NATO, the bloc could in future years — by the time Ukraine actually joins — develop into more of a military union.

The leaders of Germany, France, and Italy, the largest EU nations, gave a preview of the decision to grant candidate status to Ukraine in a visit last week to its capital, Kyiv. Still, a handful of member countries needed to be convinced that despite Ukraine’s unreadiness to join the union, it was vital to give it the prospect.

Important as the moment is for Ukraine, it is deeply significant for the EU, too. Most members had been eager to keep the bloc from growing, partly because its 27 members already find it at times exceedingly hard to agree on key issues such as democratic freedoms, economic overhauls, and the role of the courts.

The bloc nearly doubled in size in the decade 2004 to 2014, adding 13 members, many of them poorer former Soviet nations that swiftly gained access to wealthier labor markets and ample funding by the bloc.

That integration is still not complete, with several nations struggling with corruption, rule-of-law issues, and economic backsliding. This calls into question the bloc’s capacity to absorb a country of Ukraine’s size and population.

Some European nations would have also liked to see Albania and North Macedonia, Balkan nations that have been candidates for more than a decade, admitted before Ukraine. Western Balkan leaders met with their EU counterparts earlier Thursday, but the meeting yielded no progress.

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The move to grant Ukraine’s candidacy is bound to irritate Russia, which has described Ukraine’s aspirations to align itself with Western institutions such as NATO and the EU as a provocation and interference in its sphere of influence.