EU acknowledges Ukraine's membership hopes
The move comes in the wake of the Georgian-Russian conflict.
Paris -- European Union leaders gave formal recognition to Ukraine's membership hopes Tuesday in a stronger-than-expected signal of support to the former Soviet state.
At a meeting in Paris with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, the EU's top leaders "acknowledged the European aspirations of Ukraine and welcomed its European choice," and "recognized that Ukraine, as a European country, shares a common history and common values with the countries of the EU," a joint statement said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who chaired the meeting, called it an historic step, saying "It is the first time that this vocabulary has been used... It is the first time we have pronounced ourselves so clearly on Ukraine's European vocation."
However, he stopped short of passing judgment on the question of Ukraine's possible future membership, stressing that the two sides' decision to negotiate a so-called Association Agreement "neither opens nor closes any route."
The joint declaration reinforced that point, stating only that the agreement "leaves open the way for further progressive developments in EU-Ukraine relations."
The move comes after weeks of debate on whether the EU should try to support Ukraine's pro-Western government in the wake of the Russian-Georgian war by offering the country a fast track to membership, or attempt to reassure Russia by not moving further into the former-Soviet sphere.
Member states such as Britain, Poland and Sweden have been pushing for the bloc to strengthen ties with Kiev to counter-balance pressure from Moscow. States such as Germany and Italy have called for a more cautious approach in the light of Russia's concerns and the political instability of Ukraine itself.