European Union leaders have arrived in Kyiv for talks with Ukraine’s government, bringing the promise of new sanctions against Russia but disappointing Ukraine’s hopes for swift membership to the EU.
The head of the group’s executive commission, Ursula von der Leyen, arrived in Kyiv by train on Thursday, a symbolic journey to demonstrate support for Ukraine as the first anniversary of Russia’s February 24 invasion nears.
Senior members of the EU’s executive met their counterparts in the Ukrainian government and von der Leyen and the chairman of the 27 EU national leaders, Charles Michel, will convene talks with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy on Friday.
Zelenskyy has urged the EU to impose more punitive measures against Russia, but the 10th round of sanctions the bloc is preparing for the anniversary are likely to fall short of the Kyiv government’s demands.
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“Today … we reached a very important mutual understanding,” Zelenskyy said in his Thursday night video address. “That only together – a strong Ukraine and a strong European Union – can we defend the life that we value, and through our further integration, provide energy and motivation for our people to fight on regardless of obstacles and threats.”
The gathering is the first of its kind to take place in Kyiv since the Russian invasion.
EU states have offered Kyiv political, economic and military backing throughout the war and von der Leyen told reporters during a news conference on Thursday alongside Zelenskyy, that existing sanctions were “eroding” Russia’s economy and “throwing it back by a generation”.
Multiple requirements for membership
But despite the shows of solidarity, Ukraine’s desire to join the bloc is unlikely to be met anytime soon.
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After a recent Ukrainian crackdown on high-level corruption, EU leaders are set to dash Kyiv’s hopes of swift membership by underlining the need for more anti-corruption measures.
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Kyiv, said Ukraine “wants to be part of the European Union and turn to the West”.
“It says this is part of what it is fighting [against Russia] for,” Butler said.
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“The EU, though, is likely to send the message that there is still a lot of work to be done in order for Ukraine to reach the criteria to become a full EU member.”
The EU has listed multiple requirements for Ukraine to join the bloc, from political and economic stability to adopting several of its laws.
Kyiv was granted membership candidate status at record speed last June, but full ascension could take several years yet, if not longer.
The last country to join the EU was Croatia in 2013, a decade after formally applying. Poland, Ukraine’s neighbour, waited for 20 years before becoming a member in 2004.
‘Europe stood united with Ukraine from day one’
EU officials told the Reuters news agency this week’s meetings would address more arms and money for Ukraine as well as more access for Ukrainian products to the EU market and helping Kyiv cover its energy needs.
Sanctions on Russia, prosecuting Russia’s leadership for the war, and extending an EU no-roaming mobile calls zone to Ukraine would also be discussed, the officials said.
The EU has already earmarked almost 60 billion euros ($65bn) in aid to Ukraine, including nearly 12 billion euros ($13.2bn) of military support and 18 billion euros ($19.8bn) to help run the country this year.
Further underpinning Kyiv’s response to Russia’s offensive, the EU’s Borrell on Thursday announced doubling the number of Ukrainian troops to be trained by the bloc to 30,000 this year. He also promised 25 million euros ($27.5m) for de-mining areas recaptured by Ukraine.
“Europe stood united with Ukraine from day one. And will still stand with you to win and rebuild,” Borrell wrote on Twitter.
The EU’s top officials for migration, agriculture, economy and justice are also in the Ukrainian capital.