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European Union grants candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova

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European Union leaders granted EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova on Thursday as they assembled in Brussels for a two-day European Council summit.

Why it matters: The move, which required the unanimous consent of all EU members, is the first step in what could be a long process towards full EU membership. But it is a symbolic victory for Ukraine amid the ongoing war with Russia.

The EU’s executive arm endorsed Ukraine for candidate status last week after the leaders of France, Germany and Italy also expressed their support.

What they’re saying: “A historic moment. Today marks a crucial step on your path towards the EU,” European Council president Charles Michel tweeted confirming the news.

“Our future is together,” he added, congratulating Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Moldovan President Maia Sandu.Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo on Thursday called the move an important symbolic signal, but warned that, “for Ukraine, it’s going to be a long, long way, with huge reforms that will take a lot of time,” Politico reported.

The big picture: Ukraine and Moldova formally applied to join the EU shortly after the start of Russian unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February.

The war in Ukraine awakened U.S. and EU leaders to the fact that engagement with former Eastern bloc and Soviet states couldn’t continue at a “snail’s speed,” Moldova’s Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu told Axios in April.Moldova, wedged between Ukraine and Romania, has welcomed large numbers of Ukrainian refugees.

Of note: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a speech Wednesday that the EU — already facing deep internal divisions — would have to amend its voting rules in key areas such as foreign policy before it could admit new members, a condition that could sink any chances of enlargement, Politico reported.

Between the lines: The granting of candidate status is not an automatic gateway to beginning accession negotiations, which would also require unanimous approval from all current members.

Turkey was granted candidate status in 1999 and opened accession negotiations in 2005. Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia also all have EU candidate status. Serbia and Montenegro have been in accession negotiations since 2014 and 2012, respectively, and are not close to completing the process. The EU agreed to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia in 2020, but the talks have not yet begun.Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo have been “potential candidates” to the EU for years.

Our thought bubble, from Axios’ Zach Basu: Being a candidate is a long way from being a member and Ukraine will likely have to meet a lot of difficult preconditions, including an end to the war.

Nevertheless, it’s a huge symbolic step for the EU to be unanimous on a decision like this, given how fractured the bloc has been over enlargement in the past.