Although it could take the two countries more than a decade to qualify for membership, the decision at a two-day EU summit is a symbolic step which highlights the bloc’s willingness to reach deep into the former Soviet Union – in what Ukraine’s ambassador called “a signal to Moscow”.
Georgia was also given a “European perspective” but told it must fulfil certain conditions before winning candidate status.
The European Parliament endorsed the bids hours before the summit started, passing a resolution that called on EU governments to “move without delay” and “live up to their historical responsibility”. But it was leaders on the European Council who had the final say, with the council’s president Charles Michel declaring as he announced their decision on Thursday night: “Our future is together.”
Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky – who submitted the application for membership less than a week after Russia’s invasion of his country – hailed the EU’s uncharacteristically swift move, which he called “a unique and historic moment” in his nation’s relations with the bloc. “Ukraine’s future is in the EU,” he said.
Moldova’s president Maia Sandu suggested the move would bring more welfare, more opportunities and more order to her nation, but added: “We have a difficult road ahead, which will require a lot of work and effort.”
Mr Zelensky’s chief of staff was reported as saying that Kyiv would do everything it could to quickly implement a plan allowing negotiations on Ukraine’s accession to the EU to begin.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she was convinced that Ukraine and Moldova will move as swiftly as possible to implement necessary reforms.
Both countries will have to curb government corruption and adopt other reforms, such as cracking down on the influence of oligarchs and strengthening their legal systems if they are to join the bloc.
“There can be no better sign of hope for the citizens of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in these troubled times,” Ms von der Leyen told reporters on the sidelines of the summit.
“I am deeply convinced that our decision that we have taken today strengthens us all. It strengthens Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in the face of Russian aggression. And it strengthens the European Union because it shows once again to the world that the European Union is united and strong in the face of external threats.”
Her comments echoed those from the European Parliament’s president Roberta Metsola, who said ahead of the final announcement that the move would “strengthen Europe”, adding: “It is a decision for freedom and democracy and puts us on the right side of history.”
Behind the triumphant rhetoric, however, there remains concern within the EU about how the bloc can remain coherent as it embarks upon its most ambitious expansion since welcoming Eastern European states after the Cold War.
The move could also stoke frustration among Balkan nations attempting to join the bloc, raising the risk for the EU that Russia and China extend their influence into the region.
Reticence over EU enlargement has slowed progress towards membership for countries including Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – whose leaders met their EU counterparts in Brussels on Thursday morning.
Arriving at the meeting, Albania’s prime minister Edi Rama said: “Welcome to Ukraine, it’s a good thing to give candidate status, but I hope the Ukrainian people will not have much illusions about this.”
A draft of the summit statement showed that EU leaders will again give “full and unequivocal commitment to the EU membership perspective of the western Balkans”.
But Kosovo’s president Vjosa Osmani warned: “The more the EU doesn’t give a unified and a clear sign to the Western Balkans, the more other malign factors will use that space and that vacuum.”
As the prospect of expansion looms larger, German chancellor Olaf Scholz said this week that the EU must “reform its internal procedures” to prepare for the accession of new members, singling out the need for key issues to be agreed with a qualified majority rather than by unanimity – a quirk which often frustrates EU ambitions because individual member states can block or water down decisions.
But in the face of these complications, one former resident of Kharkiv said that “all the people in Ukraine are watching and waiting for this decision”.
“It’s very, very important to raise their morale,” Ivan Zichenko, a 34-year-old who now lives in Brussels told Reuters, as dozens chanted “Ukraine is Europe” outside the building housing European leaders in the Belgian capital.
Earlier on Thursday, Ukraine’s EU ambassador Vsevolod Chentsov told the same news agency that the EU’s green light was “a signal to Moscow that Ukraine, and also other countries from the former Soviet Union, cannot belong to the Russian spheres of influence”.
He added: “There are Ukrainian soldiers calling home from the front line and asking: what is happening with our candidate status? It’s amazing how important it is for Ukrainian people.”
As Russia amassed troops at Ukraine’s border prior to its invasion, Mr Putin had demanded that Ukraine never be allowed to join Nato, which he has condemned for its eastward spread toward Russia’s flank.
But earlier this month, he insisted he was unfazed by Ukraine’s determination to get closer to the EU, saying it is not a military pact and thus “we have no objections”.
Once a country gains membership to the EU it is covered under a treaty clause which says that if a member falls victim to armed aggression, other countries in the bloc are obligated to assist it by all the means in their power.
Additional reporting by agencies