European Union leaders formally accepted Ukraine as a candidate to join the 27-nation bloc on Thursday, a bold geopolitical move hailed by Ukraine and the EU itself as a "historic moment".
Although it could take Ukraine and neighbouring Moldova more than a decade to qualify for membership, the decision at a two-day EU summit is a symbolic step that signals the bloc's intention to reach deep into the former Soviet Union.
"Ukraine will prevail. Europe will prevail. Today marks the beginning of a long journey that we will walk together," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said.
The EU leaders' unusually quick decision to give Ukraine candidate status was triggered by Russia's incursion. EU leaders stressed, however, that the bloc will need a major overhaul of its decision-making process before it can enlarge again – and Ukraine and Moldova will have much "homework" to do.
"I am convinced that they 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.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy welcomed the EU's decision as "a unique and historic moment", tweeting "Ukraine's future is in the EU."
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, however, there is concern within the EU about how the bloc can remain coherent as it continues to enlarge.
After starting in 1951 as an organisation of six countries to regulate industrial production, the EU now has 27 members that face complex challenges from climate change and the rise of China to a war on their own doorstep.
Russian President Vladimir Putin says his "special military operation" launched in Ukraine in late February was partly necessitated by Western encroachment into what Russia characterises as its rightful geographical sphere of influence.
The EU's green light "is a signal to Moscow that Ukraine, and also other countries from the former Soviet Union, cannot belong to the Russian spheres of influence," Ukraine's EU ambassador, Chentsov Vsevolod, told Reuters earlier on Thursday. (Reuters)