Ukraine and Moldova won backing from European Union leaders on Thursday to become official candidates to join the bloc, a seminal move that comes after months of lobbying from the war-torn country and its neighbour to start the long road to membership.
The decision is "a strong signal towards Russia in the current geopolitical context" French President Emmanuel Macron said in Brussels,
Amid the Russian invasion "there can be no better sign of hope" for the country's citizens, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, speaking alongside Macron.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted that he was "grateful" for the support, describing it as a "unique and historical moment."
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hailed the decision. "Here's to good cooperation in the European family!" Scholz wrote.
Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said "history has been made" at the summit meeting in Brussels, which continues on Friday.
EU accession, a politically fraught and legally complex process, can drag on for years or even decades - and Ukraine's path begins as it finds itself entering the fourth month of its grinding war with Russia.
Being an official candidate for membership is the first step of many in joining the EU and gives access to financial support for social, legal and economic reforms intended to bring the aspiring country closer to EU standards.
The decision from EU leaders to grant the status required unanimity and follows a European Commission recommendation based on a number of conditions.
Ukraine is required to implement reforms in the areas of the economy, strengthening the rule of law and fundamental rights and the fight against corruption and oligarchs.
Moldova’s economy and public administration meanwhile needs improvement.
Fellow applicant Georgia was given the prospect of becoming an official candidate once it carried out reforms, according to a joint statement, an acknowledgement the Caucasus country has far to go before entering the bloc.
Ukraine applied for EU membership days after Russia launched its invasion at the end of February. Moldova and Georgia submitted their applications shortly afterwards.
The three applications met initial resistance from EU member states sceptical of adding new members to the bloc, including France and the Netherlands.
But Ukraine’s speedy progress in garnering the unanimous support needed to advance its bid is seen as unprecedented.
Kiev's fast-tracked victory also called attention to the bitter frustrations of West Balkan leaders for their countries' own prospects for membership.
A meeting with their EU counterparts earlier on Thursday failed to make any breakthrough.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama hit out at the protracted process, describing his country as only “guests in a divided house” in their bid for EU membership.
Talks to agree on the EU candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova took longer than expected to conclude, with Austria, Croatia and Slovenia pressing for similar status to be awarded to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“Ukraine and the war are of course the dominant topics, but we must not forget the Balkans,” Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said at the sidelines of the meeting.
“It is important to take care of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and today's intensive discussion was necessary and right for that,” he added.
In a joint statement EU leaders also called for a “swift resolution of the last remaining issues” between Bulgaria, which is an EU member, and North Macedonia so entry talks to the bloc may begin for the latter.
North Macedonia and Albania received EU candidate status in 2005 and 2014 respectively. The two countries have since been waiting to enter formal accession talks, with Bulgaria most recently blocking progress in a dispute linked to national identity, history and languages.
Bulgaria’s government lost a vote of no confidence on Wednesday, which made a breakthrough at Thursday's talk unlikely. Despite this, the parliament in Sofia is currently considering a compromise of how the stalemate could be overcome.
Candidate status comes for Ukraine after the country grew closer to the EU when it signed a hugely controversial association agreement in 2014 to deepen economic and political ties.
Efforts by the former pro-Russian President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych to walk away from the deal caused widespread public demonstrations that ousted him from office and paved the way for new, pro-European governments.
Worried about Kiev's pivot to the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened, annexing the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, and subsequently began backing pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east.
The insurgents in the Donbass had been fighting NATO-backed Ukrainian government forces for years before Moscow tried to topple the Ukrainian government by launching a military offensive targeting Kiev in February 2022.
The next step in the path to membership is the opening of formal accession talks, a step which again requires the approval of all EU member states and may take years.