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Leaders from the European Union on Thursday voted to grant Ukraine and Moldova candidate status to join the 27-member nation bloc in an important step towards full membership.
The decision is the first of many steps needed to grant the nations EU membership which will enable them to share deeper economic integration and political cooperation.
Though the EU is not a military alliance, it will also enable greater security ties and cement Ukraine as an independent democratic nation in the wake of Russia’s war efforts.
President of the European Council Charles Michel called the move “historic” and said, “Today marks a crucial step on your path towards the EU.”
“Congratulations [President Volodymyr Zelenskyy] and [President Maia Sandu] and the people of Ukraine and Moldova,” he added. “Our future is together.”
The vote Thursday came just under a week after President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen threw her weight behind Kyiv and recommended it for candidate status.
But Ukraine still faces several hurdles it must jump through before it can officially join the EU nation bloc.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy officially requested EU membership days after Russia invaded on Feb. 24.
But the war-torn nation will now have to prove it stands up to the economic and democratic standards required by the union that was first created in the aftermath of World War II.
It is unclear if the EU will expect Ukraine to prove the same level of economic stability it has demanded from other nations seeking membership, but some have warned against prioritizing Kyiv over other applicants.
Austrian ministers Alexander Schallenberg and Karoline Edtstadler reportedly sent a letter last month to the EU’s top diplomat Joseph Borrell warning against preferential treatment for Ukraine.
“Particularly against the background of the war in Ukraine, we have to remain vigilant and give the same priority to the Western Balkans as to Ukraine,” the pair wrote according to a CNBC report. “We cannot allow ourselves to create first and second-class candidates.”
Several nations like Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have been EU candidates for years.
Turkey has also sought to join the EU block since 1999, though concerns over its human rights record has kept it from joining the union.
Georgia, which has also requested to join the EU, was informed Thursday that once it meets specific requirements the member nations have agreed to grant it candidate status as well.
It took some nations more than a decade to meet the EU standards for membership, including Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia which reportedly joined a decade after their official applications were submitted.
The EU chief said last week that Ukraine has already implemented roughly 70 percent of EU “rules, norms and standards” but noted that Kyiv had some more work to do when it comes to “the rule of law, oligarchs, anti-corruption and fundamental rights.”
Ukraine will need to solidify roughly 80,000 pages worth of EU regulations before it can be deemed a worthy candidate to officially join the bloc.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.