There were hugs in the streets and quiet cheers at bars in western Ukraine on Thursday night, in a few hours of tentative celebration after the European Union agreed to formally accept the country’s candidate status.
Then the siren blared – and brought with it a sober reminder the reality this war could last months or even years and that no symbolic status is going to stop the bombs.
It was especially eery, given the city had just fallen into complete darkness in time for curfew.
Everyone had been warned Russia may retaliate after the vote.
That did not dull the cheerful mood earlier tonight. Nor did the knowledge that it could be a decade before Ukraine, and neighbouring Moldova, can officially be considered members of the EU.
“One of the most important decisions for Ukraine for all 30 years of independence of our state,” said president Volodymyr Zelensky told Ukrainians on his Telegram channel.
“However, this decision is not only for Ukraine.
“This is the greatest step towards strengthening Europe that could be taken right now, in our time, and precisely in the context of the Russian war, which is testing our ability to preserve freedom and unity.”
The candidate status would make Europe “even stronger, even freer”, he said.
The decision at a two-day EU summit in Brussels was a symbolic step that signalled the bloc’s intention to reach deep into the former Soviet Union.
“A historic moment,” European Council chief Charles Michel tweeted.
“Today marks a crucial step on your path towards the EU,” he said, adding: “Our future is together.”
Chairwoman of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Ukraine’s Integration into the EU Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze hailed the decision, saying it meant “a united, value-based Europe is alive”.
“This decision will change the future of our country, the continent, and the whole world.”
Here in Ukraine, the country’s blue and yellow flag has been raised alongside the EU’s circle of stars.
Behind the triumphant rhetoric, however, there is concern within the EU about how the bloc can remain coherent as it continues to enlarge.
After starting in 1951 as an organisation of six countries to regulate industrial production, the EU now has 27 members that face complex challenges from climate change and the rise of China to a war on their own doorstep.
Russian President Vladimir Putin says his “special military operation” launched in Ukraine in late February was partly necessitated by NATO encroachment into what Russia characterises as its rightful geographical sphere of influence.
The EU’s green light “is a signal to Moscow that Ukraine, and also other countries from the former Soviet Union, cannot belong to the Russian spheres of influence,” Ukraine’s EU ambassador Chentsov Vsevolod told Reuters earlier on Thursday.
“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.”
While Ukraine and Moldova were expected to be welcomed into the EU’s waiting room, Georgia was given “a European perspective” but told it must fulfil conditions before winning candidate status.
Reticence over EU enlargement has slowed progress towards membership for a group of Balkans countries – Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – whose leaders met their EU counterparts in Brussels on Thursday morning.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said as he arrived at a meeting with EU leaders ahead of the bloc’s summit: “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 Ukraine’s fast track to formal candidate status has only served to increase their feeling of being sidelined, which carries the risk for the EU that Russia and China extend their influence into the Balkan region.
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