European leaders back Ukraine’s bid to apply for EU membership

The leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Romania pledged on Thursday to back Ukraine’s bid to apply for EU membership after traveling to Kyiv and meeting president Volodymyr Zelenskyy to show support in the face of Russia’s invasion.

“Europe is at your side and will stay there for as long as it takes,” French president Emmanuel Macron told Zelenskyy at a news conference, condemning Russia for “war, destruction and chaos” and the “barbarity” committed in the Kyiv suburb of Irpin, which the leaders visited earlier in the day.

“All four of us support the immediate granting of EU candidate status for Ukraine,” Macron said ahead of an EU summit next week that will consider the application and is expected to impose conditions on Kyiv including improving the rule of law and fighting corruption.

Macron also pledged to continue sending weapons to help Ukraine’s war effort and announced the addition of a further six Caesar howitzers on top of the 12 already offered. The EU leaders also called for Russia to end its blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports to allow the export of grain needed to ease a global food crisis.

Italian prime minister Mario Draghi said Zelenskyy understood that “the path from [EU] candidate to member is a path, not a point. It is a road that will have to see profound reforms of Ukrainian society”.

He added: “Every day, the Ukrainian people defend the values ​​of democracy and freedom that are the basis of the European project. We cannot delay this process. We must create a community that unites Kyiv with Rome, Paris, Berlin and all the other countries that share this project.”

Germany’s Olaf Scholz also emphasized the importance of Ukraine meeting the criteria for membership and said the EU should at the same time open the door to the states of the western Balkans. He and his EU colleagues, he said, had come to Kyiv with a “clear message . . . that Ukraine belongs to the European family”.

Romania’s president Klaus Iohannis also made the trip by train from Poland to Kyiv. The day before he had hosted Macron who traveled to Romania to visit French troops deployed for Nato.

EU leaders in Kyiv's Mariinsky Palace.  Seated round the table, from left: Italy's prime minister Mario Draghi, German chancellor Olaf Scholz, Zelenskyy, French president Emmanuel Macron and Romania's president Klaus Iohannis

EU leaders in Kyiv’s Mariinsky Palace. Seated round the table, from left: Italy’s prime minister Mario Draghi, German chancellor Olaf Scholz, Zelenskyy, French president Emmanuel Macron and Romania’s president Klaus Iohannis © Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Zelenskyy welcomed the pledges from his visitors, saying that Ukraine becoming a candidate to join the EU could “historically strengthen Europe” and insisted on the need for extra weapons from the west.

“We expect further supplies, foremost heavy weaponry, modern multiple launch rocket systems, anti-missile defense systems,” he said. “Each batch of such supplies saves the lives of Ukrainians. And each day of delays or putting off such decisions gives Russian soldiers the chance to kill Ukrainians, or the opportunity to destroy our cities.

“The faster we get such weaponry, the faster we can liberate our lands,” Zelenskyy said. “Russia does not want peace.”

In Moscow, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the western supply of arms to Ukraine was “futile” and would cause the country further harm.

The European Commission is expected to recommend on Friday that Ukraine should be granted EU candidate status, a first step towards membership.

Soon after the European leaders reached the capital, air raid sirens rang out in the city and across Ukraine, warning of possible missile strikes.

Russia’s armed forces have conducted almost daily missile strikes on Ukrainian military sites and infrastructure since President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of the country on February 24.

Scholz said he had invited Zelenskyy to take part in the summit of G7 leaders later this month in Bavaria.

The damage in Irpin said “a lot about the brutality of Russia’s war of aggression, which is all about destruction and conquest”, he said. “The destruction we’ve seen here. . . should be an admonishment to us to act.”

The visit comes as the leaders of the eurozone’s three largest economies have been accused by some in Kyiv, the Baltic countries and Poland of being too accommodating to Russia — accusations that Paris, Berlin and Rome have denied.

Before his trip to Kyiv, Macron, who has been criticized for urging allies not to “humiliate” Russia, insisted he was in constant touch with Zelenskyy about the war and reminded Nato allies that “we are not waging war against Russia”.

“The only desirable outcome of the conflict is either a Ukrainian military victory or at some point a negotiation because there will have been a ceasefire, which could allow for an agreement between Ukraine and Russia,” he said on Wednesday.

US president Joe Biden said on Wednesday that the US would provide an additional $1bn in security assistance to Kyiv, including artillery, coastal defense and advanced rocket systems.

Additional reporting by Amy Kazmin in Rome

Video: Volodymyr Zelenskyy: ‘No one is humiliating Ukraine. They are killing us’

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