EU leaders have accepted Ukraine and Moldova as candidates to join the bloc, paving a path to membership that will likely take a few years.
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that it was a historic moment and a “good day for Europe”.
“Your countries are part of our European family,” she posted.
President of Ukraine Voldymyr Zelenskyy called it “one of the most important decisions” in Ukrainehistory as an independent state.
He also said it was the “biggest step that can be taken to strengthen Europe right now” and in a statement thanked each EU leader individually.
“Our future lies in the EU,” says Zelensky – Live Ukraine Updates
The move is likely to anger Russia, which has opposed the prospect of Ukraine joining and moving closer to the West.
Ukraine applied less than a week after its invasion in Februaryand his candidacy was accelerated.
The heads of state and government of the EU countries approved the step at a special summit in Brussels.
Ms von der Leyen said the decision “strengthens Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in the face of Russian imperialism”.
“And it strengthens the EU,” she added, “because it once again shows the world that we are united and strong in the face of external threats.”
Moldova’s President Maia Sandu also hailed a historic moment for her tiny landlocked country bordering Ukraine.
She said there was a “difficult road ahead” but one that offered “more prosperity, more opportunity and more order”. The country is one of the poorest in Europe.
Georgia is also well on the way to becoming a candidate
EU Council President Charles Michel tweeted that a third country was also taking steps to join the Union, ex-Soviet state Georgia.
He said the Council “recognized Georgia’s European perspective and stands ready to grant candidate status once outstanding priorities have been addressed”.
“Congratulations to the Georgian people. A historic moment in EU-Georgia relations: Georgia’s future lies in the EU,” he said.
Candidates must meet standards related to the state of their economy and their political environment, including a commitment to the rule of law and other democratic principles.
Ukraine needs to reduce government corruption and implement other reforms.
How long the process will take is unclear. Turkey, for example, was granted candidate status in 1999 but its application has been held up by various disputes.
The three countries “all have work to do before moving on to the next phase of the process,” Ms von der Leyen said, adding that she knew “that they will move quickly.”
When a country joins the EU, it is protected by a treaty clause that obliges other members to help if it is attacked.
Many in Ukraine have long harbored hopes of breaking away from Moscow’s influence and joining the EU.
The 2013-14 Euromaidan protests in the country were sparked by former President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to refuse to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the EU.
Ukraine is also aiming to join NATO, which is separate from the EU, but that’s a distant prospect right now, and President Vladimir Putin has called for it never to become a member of the military alliance.