European Union leaders have formally granted Ukraine candidate status to become a member of the bloc during their two-day summit in Brussels.

Diplomats have described the recommendation as historic, given the deep divisions in recent months over Ukraine's readiness to become a candidate for membership.

EU leaders also granted candidate status to Moldova. They agreed to offer Georgia a "European perspective", but said it must carry out a raft of steps before it can become a candidate.

"Agreement. #EUCO has just decided EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. A historic moment," President of the European Council Charles Michel said in a tweet, referring to the European Council of EU leaders (EUCO).

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he "sincerely commended" the leaders for their decision.

In a post on Twitter, he called it a "unique and historic moment" in relations between the EU and Ukraine.

"Ukraine's future is within the EU," he added.

The President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said the EU leaders' decision "strengthens us all".

Also on Twitter, Ms von der Leyen said that all candidate countries "have work to do before moving to the next stage of the process," but that she believes they will move swiftly.

"They know how crucial this is for their democracies, their economies and their citizens," she said.

The approval of the Kyiv government's application by EU leaders will anger Russia, as it struggles to impose its will on Ukraine.

Ursula von der Leyen, Charles Michel and Emmanuel Macron at a press conference in Brussels

Several months ago there was far from any clear consensus on Ukraine joining the EU.

Despite widespread sympathy for the country due to the trauma and destruction unleashed by Russia's invasion, many member states believed Ukraine’s pre-war problems of corruption, not to mention its size and economic ranking, meant it was not yet ready for candidate status.

However, that has changed following the February invasion and ensuing war.

Last week, the European Commission recommended that Ukraine should be granted candidate status, with accession negotiations conditional on major reforms.

Ms von der Leyen told a press conference in Brussels that Ukraine had "already implemented roughly 70% of rules, norms and standards.

"Yet important work remains to be done, on the rule of law, oligarchs, anti-corruption and fundamental rights," she said, adding that "progress depends entirely on Ukraine".

The fact Ukrainians were dying in their tens of thousands in order to embrace a future based on European democracy turned the tide of opinion in formerly reticent capitals such as Paris, Berlin and Rome.

Mr Zelensky said he had been conducting a "telephone marathon" on his country's behalf in the run-up to the meeting, making his case to 11 European leaders yesterday alone.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin described the meeting as "very significant".

"Its historic in the sense of the enlargement of the European Union. I'm particularly pleased as a longstanding advocate for Ukraine's application to candidate status to become members of the European Union," he said.

"We in Ireland know what being in the European Union means. It is the 50th anniversary of Ireland's decision to join the European Union - probably the single most transformative decision and event that happened in modern Irish history," he added.

"I always could not comprehend how we could ever refuse accession to other member states because we know that membership itself can be transformative and can spur on economic development.

"I think today the European Union is sending a message of solidarity to the people of Ukraine that you belong to the European family, that you belong to the European Union."

Ireland has long supported candidacy and was the first western EU member states to join the Baltic and eastern European member states in pressing for the offer.

EU leaders meeting in Brussels

EU leaders will also discuss enlargement in the western Balkans.

However, the collapse of the Bulgarian coalition means Sofia will not be in a position to lift a veto it has imposed on bringing North Macedonia a step closer to membership.

The veto is the result of a dispute between North Macedonia and Bulgaria over history and language.

Earlier this month, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called on the European Union to begin accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania to finally fulfil its pledge to integrate the western Balkans.

EU bans Russian lobbying from its institutions

Meanwhile, the EU's major institutions have banned lobbyists working for Russian interests from their premises, officials have said.

The 705-member European Parliament made the move already in early June and the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, as well as the council, which represents member states, have followed suit.

"We have been instructed that we should no longer receive people who represent a Russian interest," an EU official.

The decision concerns all Russian interest representatives who are registered to have access to the premises of the institutions to meet with commissioners, their staff and elected MEPs.

The decision is part of the implementation of the sixth set of sanctions adopted by the European Union, which bans all business and public relations consultancy services.

Russian diplomats, officials and executives were already banned from EU facilities and denied visas to enter the bloc, but until now EU nationals representing the interests of their Russian clients in Brussels had not been prevented from conducting business.

Additional reporting AFP