Macron, Scholz and Draghi support Ukraine’s EU candidacy in Kyiv visit

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BERLIN — The leaders of the European Union’s three largest economies on Thursday said they were backing Ukraine’s candidacy to join the 27-member bloc, a move that President Volodymyr Zelensky has proudly advocated as his country loses ground in the face of Russia’s invasion.

French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi pledged the backing after traveling by overnight train to Kyiv. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, who is also visiting Kyiv to meet with Zelensky, accompanied them.

“We are at a turning point in our history,” said Draghi, calling the visit “an unequivocal confirmation of our support.”

“Every day the Ukrainian people are defending the values ​​of democracy and liberty that are the pillars of the European project, of our project,” he said.

The announcement comes a day before the European Union’s executive arm is expected to recommend that Ukraine be granted candidate status.

US to send $1 billion in military aid to bolster Ukrainian fight

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Zelensky has argued that Ukraine should be admitted to the 27-member block under a special, expedited procedure. Senior Ukrainian officials have rebuffed the idea of ​​conditional membership, saying the starting point for any discussion is legal status for Ukraine.

Full membership, Zelensky said, would “prove that words about the longing of the Ukrainian people to be a part of the European family are not just words.”

While support from Germany, France, Italy and the Commission will add momentum to Ukraine’s membership bid, all 27 member states will still need to agree — and EU diplomats expect significant debate and division.

Even once candidate status is granted, the process typically takes years. A prospective member’s entire body of laws must be picked over and brought into compliance with standards set in Brussels.

Macron warned recently that it could be “decades” before Ukraine is a full member.

Before their meeting with Zelensky, the European leaders visited the suburb of Irpin, an area that bore the brunt of Russia’s initial failed effort to encircle and capture the capital.

The visit comes at a pivotal time on the ground. Zelensky has also warned that Ukraine is suffering “painful losses” in the eastern region of Donbas, and he has urged Europe to provide more military support.

He has said that if defense aid is not significantly increased, the war risks devolving into a bloody stalemate as Russian forces continue ground assaults on the strategic eastern city of Severodonetsk. President Biden on Wednesday responded to calls from Ukraine for more weapons with an additional $1 billion in security assistance to the country.

But Europe is under pressure to do more. Germany, in particular, is under fire for dragging its feet on weapons shipments. Berlin has yet to deliver any heavy weapons to Ukraine, despite promising to do so nearly two months ago.

The German Defense Ministry has said that 15 promised self-propelled Gepard antiaircraft guns will be delivered in July, while Panzerhaubitze 2000 howitzers will be sent “soon.”

Scholz’s visit comes after months of mounting pressure to do so. He initially said that he wouldn’t be going after Ukraine disinvited German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Ukraine’s ambassador in Berlin Andrij Melnyk had called him an “offended liver-sausage” for refusing to go.

He has also said he has no desire to simply visit for a photo opportunity — raising expectations for an announcement during the trip.

The three leaders “want to show their support for Ukraine and the citizens of Ukraine,” Scholz said on arrival in Kyiv, Germany’s DPA news agency reported. “But we don’t just want to demonstrate solidarity, we also want to assure that the help we organize — financial and humanitarian, but also when it comes to weapons — will be continued,” he said.

The German chancellor’s hesitant response to the war has raised questions over Germany’s commitment to Ukraine’s cause. “We need Chancellor Scholz to assure us that Germany supports Ukraine,” Zelensky said in an interview with Germany’s ZDF television ahead of the visit.

He called on the country to make a “decision” and stop balancing backing Ukraine with maintaining relations with Russia.

The European Commission’s decision on Ukraine’s candidacy this week does not grant this status, but will be considered by member states when they gather to discuss the issue at a European Council summit in Brussels next week. A major question is whether the commission will decide to grant candidate status with conditions related to rule of law or corruptions — an idea Ukraine has opposed but some member states support because it would offer a moral boost to Ukraine while also responding concerns about the country’s readiness .

While several EU officials, lawmakers and leaders have pressed in recent weeks to expedite Kyiv’s bid, others have tried to temper Ukrainian expectations, arguing that Ukraine is not ready for membership and that other countries are ahead in line. If member states can agree on a path forward, Ukraine could begin the long process of accession quickly, but the road ahead would be long.

Among EU leaders, Draghi has been a particularly vocal supporter of Ukraine’s ambitions to join the European Union, at a time when the idea of ​​granting Kyiv candidate status seems to be gaining momentum. Two weeks ago, Draghi said the notion was opposed by “almost all” major European countries, “excluding Italy.”

“I support Ukraine to become a member of the European Union, and I have done so from the start,” Draghi said at that news conference. He has also said that any cease-fire should happen only on “terms that Ukraine will deem acceptable.”

But France and Germany have dampened expectations of a speedy accession process. Macron has previously suggested that, in the meantime, Ukraine should join a separate “European political community” that is widely seen as a halfway measure.

Macron was a key supporter of EU sanctions against Russia after its invasion in February. But the French leader, who had visited Moscow in a last-ditch attempt to prevent war and sought out a major diplomatic role by portraying himself as a natural point of contact for Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin, has faced mounting how over his efforts.

The Élysée presidential palace kept a rapidly expanding tally of Macron’s calls with Putin and Zelensky in the run-up to the invasion, but the frequency of those exchanges has markedly decreased since.

Macron’s critics allege that his often ambiguous statements appeared to put an outsize emphasis on helping Russia avoid humiliation in the war and lacked public commitment to a full Ukrainian victory on the battlefield.

“Nobody negotiated with Hitler,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in April, according to Reuters. “Mr. President Macron, how many times have you negotiated with Putin, what have you achieved?” he added.

Macron has consistently declined to echo the forceful condemnations of Putin by Biden, who has called the Russian leader a “war criminal,” a “killer” and a “butcher.”

Ukrainian ambassador in Berlin doesn’t care if he offends for his cause

Scholz has come under similar criticism. Instead of saying that Ukraine should be victorious, he has instead used phrasing that Russia should not win. Ukrainian officials fear this lack of explicit backing indicates that Europe is angling toward a negotiated settlement that would involve Ukraine ceding territory.

Speaking during his visit on Thursday, the German Chancellor said the sanctions the EU has so far imposed on Moscow “contribute to the chance that Russia will abandon its plan and withdraw its troops, because that’s the goal.”

Despite his softer language, Macron has insisted that France would continue to support Ukraine economically and with humanitarian aid. Macron this week also pushed back on criticism that he has not been vocally supportive enough of Ukraine, arguing that “excessive talk” will not speed up the war’s timeline.

“When — as I hope — Ukraine will have won, and above all when the firing has stopped, we must negotiate. The Ukrainian president and his leaders will have to negotiate with Russia,” he told reporters on Wednesday during a visit to Romania, where French troops are part of a multinational NATO force meant to defend the eastern part of the alliance.

“I think that we are at a time when we need to send clear political signals — we Europeans, we as the European Union — with regard to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, given the context that they have been heroically resisting for several months,” Macron said, in a comment that appeared to refer to Thursday’s visit to Kyiv.

French voters will cast their ballots in the final round of the country’s parliamentary elections on Sunday. Macron beat far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the presidential election runoff in April, securing a second five-year term, but he now faces an emboldened and more united left-wing opposition under the leadership of Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Noack reported from Paris and Rauhala from Brussels. Stefano Pitrelli in Rome, Kate Brady in Berlin and David Stern in Kyiv contributed.

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