Leaders from the 27 member states of the European Union head into a summit in Brussels Thursday to consider the “most ambitious expansion since welcoming Eastern European states after the Cold War,” per Reuters.

Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are seeking candidacy status and are slated to be approved. Ukraine’s application, submitted at the end of February, has been considered with unprecedented speed by members of the EU eager to show solidarity.

What is the process to join the EU?

Joining the EU requires a country to satisfy conditions known as the “Copenhagen criteria,” which are generally “a functioning market economy, a stable democracy and the rule of law, and the acceptance of all EU legislation, including of the euro.”

If a country is deemed able to meet these criteria, and there is unanimous approval from the current members, their candidacy is approved. During the candidacy period, which can last for decades, the candidate country must make reforms to meet all criteria before it can become a member.

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Joining the long line of candidates

The three countries are set to join a line of candidate countries who have been working, with mixed success, for years to integrate into the bloc. North Macedonia has been waiting for accession since its candidacy was approved in 2005. Bulgaria halted talks for North Macedonia and Albania’s joint membership bid, but movement in their position may be possible, according to Euronews.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, frustrated by the lack of progress, spoke out against the EU leadership, calling them a “disgrace.” The bid being held hostage by one member did not sit well with Rama, saying “it’s not good to see that 26 other countries sit still in a scary show of impotence.”

What is the significance of this candidacy?

Vsevolod Chentsov, the Ukrainian ambassador to the EU, told Reuters that approval of candidacy is “a signal to Moscow that Ukraine, and also other countries from the former Soviet Union, cannot belong to the Russian spheres of influence.”

Russia has expressed serious disapproval of countries from the former Soviet Union allying themselves with the West. According to The Washington Post, Russia retaliated against the EU leaders’ visit to Kyiv last week by cutting flow to Europe’s “most important natural gas pipeline” for two days. This approval will likely be seen as further provocation by the Kremlin.

Russia has increasingly threatened against Western alliances encroaching on the “red line” it has drawn around former Soviet countries. Newsweek reports that “serious political consequences” are promised if the eastern expansion continues.

NATO and eastward expansion

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The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was signed in 1949 with the purpose of “deterring Soviet expansionism, forbidding the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe through a strong North American presence on the continent, and encouraging European political integration.”

NATO-Russia cooperative relations, starting after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, were suspended in 2014 after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Ukraine has made clear its desire to join NATO, but Russia views the eastward expansion of participating countries as a direct threat and has used the push for membership as a justification for its invasion.

Finland has now announced its interest in joining NATO, which would “double the alliance’s land border with Russia,” according to The Washington Post.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry, in response to this announcement, said it “will be forced to take retaliatory steps, both of a military-technical and other nature, in order to stop the threats to its national security that arise in this regard.”

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