Europe, capital kyiv | International
Europe has never been so close to kyiv. Physically and symbolically. In a historic visit to the Ukrainian capital at the height of the war, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, accompanied by 15 commissioners, including some vice-presidents, showed her strong support this Thursday for the government of President Volodimir Zelenski on its way to integration into the EU. The trip, on the eve of an important summit between Ukraine and the EU to be held this Friday in kyiv, certifies that the Union has fully entered a space that Russia —which is trying by all means to wrest sovereignty from the neighboring country— considered within its area of influence. In this way, Brussels seeks to demonstrate to Vladimir Putin's imperialist Russia that, although the EU is not going to intervene militarily in Ukraine —something politically unthinkable—, it will not leave the Eastern country alone, which years ago made the definitive turn towards the West to the detriment of the Russian influence.
“The future of Ukraine is in the EU,” President von der Leyen remarked in a symbolic joint appearance with Zelensky at the Ukrainian presidential building, propped up to the foundations against Russian bombing. "The future of our continent is being written here, in Ukraine," stressed the head of the Community Executive. Von der Leyen did not give Ukraine hope about the long-awaited accelerated access to the community club, but promised a package of measures to integrate the country at war into the EU internal market, one of the great assets of the community project, and incorporate it into programs key financial, telecommunications, energy, educational and social issues that will help secure the Ukrainian economy and keep it afloat as accession reforms move forward. As the culmination of all this staging, Von der Leyen promised more sanctions against Russia.
The visit of the European leader and the commissioners and vice-presidents in charge of the key accession programs took place on the same day that Putin visited the city of Volgograd to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad (as the city was then called, in honor to the Soviet dictator), who led the war against Nazism. The Russian autocrat now seems to want to attribute that victory to himself, or to Russia today, despite the fact that Ukrainians, Belarusians and other citizens of the former Soviet republics also fought in the Red Army. Putin tries to use his interpretation of history as a justification for the war in Ukraine, a country he attributes to be a Nazi regime. Yet another proof that the Russian president lives stuck in the past. From the opposite perspective, Ukraine and the Zelensky government are trying to lead that territory into the future, which for them is the EU.
"We work and we will work for integration," Zelenski remarked along with Von der Leyen, whom he received with two kisses. “Accession inspires our people, it is the logical step for us, to support our fight against the biggest anti-European force [Rusia]”, insisted the Ukrainian president.
In the opinion of the High Representative for EU Foreign Policy and Defense, Josep Borrell, what is going on in Ukraine is the struggle of democracies —embodied in Ukraine— against authoritarian regimes. “It is important to send a visible message of support for Ukraine, for the public. The EU has been supporting Ukraine against the Russian war of aggression since the start of the invasion and will continue to support it, ”he emphasizes.
A citizenry that resists
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kyiv, a city that has been recovering life since the beginning of the invasion, on February 24, has received the European delegation with a gray, cloudy appearance, at times with sleet. But also with great hope. Citizens resist the constant Russian attacks, which cause power outages due to the bombing of energy infrastructure. The population survives and fights against uncertainty, but it is also tired, exhausted. And the visit of the Commission and the summit this Friday are an accolade, an injection of morale after almost a year of invasion.
On any given Thursday of this February at war, the ground floor of Maidan Square, the independence square that in 2013 and 2014 hosted the enormous pro-European and democracy protests that broke out in the country, swarms with people. The esplanade symbolizes the movement that ended with the flight to Russia of the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych and that consolidated Ukraine's turn towards the EU, which led to the Russian invasion of Crimea and the Donbas war, where the Kremlin used as a parapet pro-Russian separatists. This large-scale invasion stems from that war, which never ended, recalls Larissa Trojina, a 38-year-old middle-grade teacher. “We are Europeans, that is indisputable, but I hope that it is recognized that we must be within the European Union, and soon”, adds Trajina, who admits that she is tired, but still with the strength to face the day to day in an extremely complicated situation.
The journey of the commissioners - first by plane to Poland and then by train to the Ukrainian capital, with tight security measures - has not been easy. The EU, as it always does, had notified Russia of its intention to travel and its schedule, but with Moscow's background, the idea that the Kremlin could sabotage the historic appointment has not been ruled out.
"It was important to go [a Kiev] now, to underline that we support Ukraine for as long as it takes," Von der Leyen remarked on board the train that took the Commission to kyiv. In his compartment, the head of the entire convoy, the Ukrainian delegation, always refining details and symbolism, had placed a leopard-print tablecloth. A curious nod to the modern and long-awaited German-made tanks that various members of the EU are preparing to send to Ukraine along with a whole logistics structure. Meanwhile, Russia is preparing to launch a new offensive in the spring, as NATO has warned. A new attack that the Kremlin could advance before the arrival of the armored vehicles.
Just over a month ago, President Zelenski visited Washington to claim and secure more support from the United States. Many expected that, after that visit, the Ukrainian leader would travel to Brussels. He has been the other way around. And the European commissioners have met with their Ukrainian counterparts to talk about the seven steps to follow in accession, which will have no shortcuts. In a small moving ceremony, the European delegation and the Ukrainian government have exchanged their respective signed flags.
The next enlargement report will come in the autumn and will review and assess the progress of Ukraine – an EU candidate since June 2022, in a quick bid of just three months – in one year. Earlier, in the spring, Brussels will pass verbal reports on progress to member states, among which the prospect of fast-track accession has dwindled, just as it did with the candidacy, which was resolved in just three months.
The war may be long and there is still no timetable for accession to the EU. But what is clear is that the community family that will receive Ukraine will not be the same as when Putin launched the war almost a year ago. The strife has pushed the Union to giant strides on many issues; it has broken huge taboos, such as agreeing to spend on offensive military material for Ukraine, and has advanced in a way unthinkable a short time ago in the strategy of disengaging from Russian energy.
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