By proclaiming their support for Ukraine and Moldova becoming official candidates for EU membership, the leaders of France, Germany and Italy on Thursday sent an unequivocal message to Vladimir Putin: the Soviet sphere of influence is dead and will not be resurrected. by force
The leaders, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, also delivered another even more direct and immediate message to Russia: the EU and its allies will not force Ukraine to surrender or compromise territorially to put end to the war. war.
“We want the atrocities to stop and we want peace,” Draghi told a news conference in Kyiv, where he and his counterparts appeared with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “But Ukraine must defend itself if we want peace, and Ukraine will choose the peace it wants. Any diplomatic solution cannot be separated from the will of Kyiv, from what it considers acceptable to its people. Only then can we build a just and lasting peace.”
Such reassurance came as a great relief to Ukrainian officials who have feared throughout the nearly four-month war that Western allies might try to force an unfair deal.
Each of the three EU leaders has been criticized in recent months for appearing too accommodating to Russia’s complaints and demands, and potentially too willing to appease Putin. Macron, for example, negotiated endlessly with Putin without success, and has repeatedly urged that Russia not be “humiliated.” Berlin, in turn, has been slow to deliver urgently needed weapons.
And yet, despite the encouraging rhetoric, the trio of leaders, representing the largest, richest and most powerful countries in the EU, did not announce any dramatic new military or financial assistance to Ukraine, which could help tip the war for Kyiv.
On the contrary, US President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday a $1 billion extra in support of Ukraine.
Ukrainian casualties are mounting as its army struggles to hold off Russian invaders who now occupy large swathes of the country’s south and east, including a “land bridge” to Crimea, which Moscow invaded and annexed at lightning speed in 2014. And there is no indication that Ukraine can achieve any peace without a giant increase in aid.
The proclamation of support for EU candidate status came during a highly symbolic, albeit months-overdue, trip to Ukraine, where the leaders visited Kyiv and Irpin, a suburb where Russian occupying forces allegedly committed atrocities before being repelled.
Other leaders, including the Czech, Polish and Slovenian prime ministers, have been visiting war-torn Ukraine since mid-March. European Parliament President Roberta Metsola went at the end of March, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has visited Kyiv twice since the Russian invasion, in April and again last week.
For much of that time, Macron was preoccupied with his re-election campaign in France, and Scholz had turned down invitations to visit after Ukraine turned down German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who had wanted to visit in April.
For their visit on Thursday, the trio of leaders was joined by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, representing the EU’s newest eastern member countries, in an apparent effort to assuage criticism that the big founding countries were acting like a cabal. exclusive.
Like his fellow travelers, Iohannis also expressed his unequivocal support for granting candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova when the European Council heads of state and government address the issue at a summit in Brussels next week. Unanimity is required for approval.
In a required procedural step, the European Commission will formally recommend the nomination of the candidate on Friday, but will refrain from doing so for Georgia, which had also applied for membership. That decision, a serious setback for Tbilisi, is a nod to the political turmoil in the country. European Council President Charles Michel has made largely unsuccessful efforts to intervene and ease the unrest in Georgia.
While Ukraine has been pushing hard to win candidate status, that designation alone offers little indication of when, or even if, Ukraine would ever formally become a member.
Some countries in the Western Balkans, including Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro, have seen their offers stalled for years. On Thursday, those three countries publicly voiced support for Ukraine and Moldova, removing a potential reason some countries had cited for not granting candidate status next week.
But even as they voiced their support on Thursday, Draghi, Macron and Scholz left open the possibility that the European Council could impose conditions on Ukraine, including demands for the strengthening of democratic institutions and the rule of law, before the country could begin. formal EU accession negotiations.
Many EU officials and diplomats said it is hard to imagine Ukraine making much progress towards real membership until it is no longer at war, and Macron has said the overall process could take a decade or more.
In Kyiv, however, Macron sounded mostly positive.
“Europe is by your side, it will continue to be as long as necessary, until victory,” said the French president. Macron also used the visit to announce that France would send an additional six Caesar self-propelled howitzers to the Ukrainian military, adding to the dozen previously sent, as well as a mobile DNA analysis laboratory to help with the processing of evidence of suspected suspects. war crimes.
“All four of us support immediate candidate status for membership,” Macron said, though he noted it was only the beginning of a longer process. “This status will be accompanied by a roadmap and will also involve taking into account the situation in the Balkans and the neighborhood, in particular Moldova,” he said.
Draghi’s strong words
Italy has traditionally had one of the closest relations with Moscow of any EU country, so Draghi’s strong words on Thursday supporting Ukraine and berating Russia for the war no doubt caused a special sting for Putin.
“Today is a historic day for Europe,” Draghi said. “Italy, France and Germany, three founding countries of the European Union, and the President of Romania have come to Ukraine to offer their unconditional support to President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people.”
Draghi also stressed that Ukraine’s EU candidacy will take time.
“The most important message from our visit is that Italy wants Ukraine to join the European Union, and wants Ukraine to have candidate status and will support this position at the next European Council,” he said, adding: “President Zelenskyy , as just said, naturally understands that the path from candidate to member is a path, not a point. It is a path that will have to see the deep reforms of the Ukrainian society”.
Zelenskyy, for his part, expressed satisfaction with his guests’ comments. “Our country is doing everything possible to become a member of the EU,” he said. “And the whole country wants it.” Among Kyiv officials, however, the mood on Thursday was not particularly euphoric, reflecting both the difficulties of the ongoing war and the reality that candidate status was just one step in a much longer undertaking. with no set end date.
In an interview, Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said it was important for top EU leaders to have a first-hand view of the destruction and evidence of atrocities in Irpin. “It is important to personally see the consequences of this war because it is very difficult to believe that this can happen in Europe in the 21st century,” Maliar said.
“When someone describes it, it can seem like a person’s emotional description may be exaggerating because it’s just scary what’s going on,” Maliar said. “It is very important to see the destruction that the Russian Federation is doing. Here you can see the full range of weapons it uses, including those prohibited by international law. You can see that almost 20 percent of the territory of Ukraine is temporarily occupied. And this is almost the size of five Sicilys.
All the leaders said they were moved by what they saw. And Scholz offered unequivocal support for Ukraine and harsh criticism of Russia.
“Ukraine has been in a heroic defensive fight against Russia for 113 days,” the German chancellor said. “For this, myself and Germany pay you great respect. It is clear that this invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point, because Russia is trying to change the borders in Europe. This is unacceptable.”
Scholz noted that Germany’s decision to supply weapons to Ukraine marked a historic shift, ending a long-standing policy of not supplying weapons in an active war zone.
“Germany has broken with a long state tradition,” he said. “We support Ukraine by supplying weapons, and we will continue to do so as long as Ukraine needs our support.”
And he added his voice to the endorsement of Ukraine’s formal membership candidacy. “Ukraine belongs to the European family,” Scholz said. “A milestone on its European path is the status of a candidate country. EU member states will discuss this in the coming days. We know: You need unanimity among the 27 EU countries. In the European Council, I will push for a unified position. Germany is in favor of a positive decision in favor of Ukraine. That also applies to the Republic of Moldova.”
Scholz said the EU would also need to make changes to accommodate a larger membership. “The EU needs to prepare and modernize its structures and procedures,” he said. Several officials have pointed out that the admission of Ukraine, due to its relatively large population, would fundamentally change the balance of power in EU decisions made by qualified majority, in which the size of the country plays a role. Ukraine would also be in a position for a relatively large delegation to the European Parliament.
The three leaders also used their visit to urge Russia to help open Black Sea shipping routes so Ukraine can export millions of tons of grain that have been blocked, adding to a global food crisis.
“We also need to unblock the millions of tons of grain that are blocked in the Black Sea ports,” Draghi said.
Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, said the visit should solidify European unity against Russia.
“It is important to see the eyes of people who have lost their children and homes, who have lost their cities that can no longer be returned to,” he said. “What you can see now in Ukraine should clearly encourage everyone to come together and stop Putin in Ukraine before he goes to Europe, because Putin’s appetites are much bigger and broader than in Ukraine.”
Hans von der Burchard, Clea Calcutt, Maia de La Baume, Paola Tamma, Christopher Miller, and Laurenz Gehrke contributed reporting.