The flag of the European Union was brought to the Ukrainian parliament on Friday morning, a week after EU leaders decided to grant Ukraine the status of candidate country to join the bloc. As the blue flag of 12 gold stars entered the chamber, lawmakers stood up, clapped and took pictures, celebrating the symbolic and highly emotional moment for the war-torn country.
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The special parliamentary session featured interventions from Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
“A new history of Ukraine and the European Union has begun. We are now not next to each other, but together. Not two neighbours between which there are borders and barriers, but one European family that has common values and a common destiny,” Zelenskyy said.
“Gaining membership in the European Union is not only geopolitics or the realisation of political aspirations. These are specific things, specific advantages that benefit the life of every person, every company, every state institution.”
Zelenskyy recounted the flurry of negotiations, meetings and phone calls that took place in the 115 days between the submission of the EU application, launched just days after Russia invaded Ukraine, and the final endorsement at last week’s European Council.
The president also said the presence of the EU flag in the parliament should not be only “a beautiful gesture” but also a reminder of the task that lies ahead for “all branches of government.”
The European Commission has put forward seven key reforms that Ukraine needs to carry out before the end of the year. The list includes the appointment of judges for the Constitutional Court, the fight against corruption and money laundering, the protection of national minorities and the implementation of a law meant to curb the excessive influence of oligarchs in the economy.
‘A victory of determination and resolve’
In a speech delivered remotely, President von der Leyen praised the “tenacity” and “passion” of the Ukrainian people, who kept the parliament open “even in the darkest days,” and emphasised the need for reforms.
“Of course, reforms always take time. That is how all our democracies work. They need constant commitment and dedication,” the Commission chief said.
“And for instance, no one expects Ukraine to fill in all posts in your new institutions while so many of your best and brightest are fighting on the front. But Ukraine’s democracy must be kept on the right track.”
Von der Leyen also highlighted the great strides the country has made since the 2014 Maidan revolution, a chapter that decisively shifted Ukraine towards the West and prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to illegally annex Crimea.
“Ukraine now has a clear European perspective and it is candidate to join the European Union. Something that seemed almost unimaginable just five months ago,” von der Leyen said.
“Today is first and foremost a moment to celebrate this historic milestone. A victory of determination and resolve. And a victory for the whole movement that started eight years ago on the Maidan.”
At the end of von der Leyen’s speech, Ruslan Stefanchuk, chair of the parliament, known as the Verkhovna Rada, asked the national guard of Ukraine to bring the EU flag into the chamber.
“The Verkhovna Rada deserves the EU flag both in colour and in meaning,” Stefanchuk said.
Matti Maasikas, the EU Ambassador to Ukraine, described the moment as “moving to tears.”
Officially a candidate country, Ukraine now enters the long, arduous and complex of EU accession, a process that can take several years and even decades.
The Commission will report to EU countries by the end of the year on the progress made by Ukraine in the adoption of reforms. Leaders will use this information to decide the next step, which could include a more detailed roadmap on how to open formal negotiations.
All major steps in enlargement policy require the unanimous approval of all member states.
“There is a long road ahead but Europe will be at your side every step of the way, for as long as it takes,” von der Leyen noted in her speech. “From these dark days of war until the moment you cross the door that leads into our European Union.”