EU heads to Ukraine for summit to boost integration as anniversary of invasion nears

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Ursula von der Leyen and over a dozen members of her top team are on Thursday in Kyiv for a meeting with the Ukrainian government to discuss further ways to boost ties and send another strong signal of support.

The trip to the Ukrainian capital by the European Commission chief and 15 of her commissioners will on Friday be followed by an EU-Ukraine summit where European Council President Charles Michel will join von der Leyen for talks with Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

It will be the first time the EU attends such a summit in an active war zone and is intended to showcase “the strength of the European Union’s unwavering support for Ukraine,” an EU official told reporters.

Commissioners will focus their meetings with Ukrainian officials on “deepening sectorial cooperation in relevant areas, ” the official added. 

“There will be essential discussions on figuring out what are the priority areas, given the circumstances, given the situation on the ground in terms of where to put the focus of the budget for humanitarian bilateral cooperation for this year,” they said.

‘Reform momentum’

The EU and Ukraine are currently bound by a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) and Kyiv is now also an official candidate country for accession to the EU. Achieving full membership requires the country to take a number of reforms to strengthen its institutions and rule of law and align itself closely with EU legislation.

The bloc, the official said, “noted the reform momentum that is ongoing in Ukraine, in particular in the area of the rule of law”, and some of the discussions between the EU executive and the Ukrainian government will therefore address recent efforts to crack down on corruption and to strengthen the judiciary independence.

Other discussions will focus more on how to “further bring down barriers, further bring down trade impediments to speed the flow of exports and imports between the EU and Ukraine,” the EU official said. 

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Talks there will aim to boost alignment of domestic legislation in several key areas including telecommunications, financial services, product safety, market surveillance, as well as sanitary and phytosanitary measures.

Further financial, humanitarian and military support should be discussed too. The EU has so far earmarked €60 billion in assistance for Ukraine including nearly €12 billion in military support, €38 billion in humanitarian and macro-financial support and €10 billion for member states to deal with the influx of Ukrainian refugees. 

Sanctions against Russia and Ukraine’s reconstruction needs are also on the agenda. 

High representative Josep Borrell is meanwhile expected on Friday to announce a doubling of the EU’s target of training Ukrainian troops to 30,000 by the end of the year as well as a new €25 million package to support the humanitarian demining of areas reconquered by Ukrainian forces.  

Brussels and Kyiv are also expected to back the creation of an International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression in Ukraine to be established in The Hague with the objective of coordinating the investigation of crimes committed in Ukraine by Russia and preserving and storing evidence for future trials. 

Hopes of quick membership likely dashed

But one of the EU’s messages is likely to be bitter for Ukraine: there will be no fast-tracking for Ukraine’s bid to become a member. 

Kyiv has said recently it is hoping to become a full member by 2026 despite previous warnings, notably by French President Emmanuel Macron, that the accession process can take “decades”.

The Commission is currently working on a technical assessment of the fulfillment by Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia — who have also put  in bids since Russia launched its invasion on 24 February — of key criteria to become a member, which is now schedule to be released later in the year.

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A senior EU official stressed to reporters that while the steps taken by the war-torn country under the current circumstances will be acknowledged, the bloc will not deviate from its methodology for Ukraine. 

“There is a need to apply a considerable methodology towards the assessment of the progress towards what is actually quite a complex process of membership throughout each and every single sector of the acquis,” the senior EU official said. 

“It’s very difficult to shorten that period so we will do that as with other candidates who are progressing the same. So we will do that absolutely with even more effort, of course, with Ukraine given the current circumstances but we will apply the same methodology because I think it’s important that the legitimacy of the methodology be upheld,” they added.

The first meetings on Thursday come as Russia celebrates the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory in the Battle of Stalingrad when Nazi and allied forces were defeated following one of the bloodiest fights in history. About two million people lost their lives during the eight-months long battle.