Kyiv’s special envoy to the EU says Ukraine’s candidate status would send a clear signal to Russia | Ukraine
Granting Ukraine candidate status for EU membership would be a historic decision signaling to Russia that it can no longer claim a sphere of influence over its eastern neighbour, the Kyiv ambassador told Brussels.
Vsevolod Chentsov, the head of Ukraine’s mission to the EU, said Russia’s war had united Kyiv with the bloc, while ending what he called a “mistake” over if his country could belong to the union.
Speaking to the Guardian ahead of a historically charged EU summit on Thursday, he said that for many years Ukraine had been seen as a bridge or buffer state rather than a potential member.
A decision on candidate status “would finally kill, this ambiguity, what is Ukraine for the EU: whether we are building a common house or not… I think now, finally, there is clarity “.
EU leaders will decide on Thursday whether to grant Ukraine candidate status, following a positive recommendation from the European Commission last Friday. Expectations of a yes vote have risen since four European leaders, including France and Germany, who had been seen as among the more lukewarm, visited Kyiv last week in a show of support.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy applied for EU membership five days after the Russian attack began. On a day when explosions were heard in Kyiv, Zelenskiy called for “immediate joining under a new special procedure”. While the initial response from around 10 EU states was deeply skeptical, opposition has faded, although questions remain about the long way to go.
Ukraine has been seeking EU membership since the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution’ and more strongly since the Maidan protests of 2013-14, when pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted after refusing to sign an association agreement with the bloc.
The decision to apply for EU membership on February 29, 2022 followed the same logic as the Maidan protests, Chentsov said: “Ukraine is fighting for independence and the European future. And at the end of February, it just reached its climax with the full and open Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“We need this clarity [on EU membership] to support the Ukrainian army, Ukrainian society, morally, psychologically, and to have a clear idea and understanding of the direction of the movement for Ukraine.
Before the war, EU membership was not an option for the country of 41 million people which was plagued by corruption. The EU Association Agreement with Kyiv describes Ukraine as “a European country [that] shares a common history and common values,” but avoided mentioning membership.
Russia’s war has changed the perception of Ukraine for EU governments and their constituents, the ambassador suggested. “This war has fundamentally united us with the EU at all possible levels: government to government, but mainly people to people.”
He said that “the fact that Europeans, citizens of the EU, receive Ukrainians as their brothers, that they live under one roof” was very important in changing perceptions about whether Ukraine could be EU member. “It’s not a strange country, we’re not strange people. We are the same, we share the same understanding of this world.
A survey published this week by the European Council on Foreign Relations showed that 57% of Europeans support Ukraine’s bid for membership. Poland was the most favorable with 70% in favour; in Germany, France and Italy, however, support was below 50% – at 48%, 47% and 46% respectively – although it still outweighed opposition.
Zelenskiy had warned the EU to expect increased hostilities from Russia during the week of talks on Ukraine’s candidate status. Its ambassador said the bloc should not make its decisions by trying to anticipate the Kremlin’s thinking. He argued that unnamed European capitals had made a “big mistake” in the past by “always looking[ing] what Russia thinks and what Russia will do”.
Some still face a “psychological block”, he said, when it comes to sending weapons to Ukraine. “The mental block is to face the reality that they really need to support Ukraine to effectively fight Russia. Many countries could not imagine that they could provide weapons to fight Russia and now they are getting there .
If Ukraine obtains the status of candidate country, it will take years to join the EU. The ambassador supported France’s proposals to create a “European political community”, an organization to unite EU countries with past and potential members on security, energy and opportunities for young people.
The French proposals were “a useful initiative…to avoid the vacuum, the gap between the current status and future membership”, the ambassador said while refusing to say how long membership negotiations might take.
“It will certainly take time,” Chentsov said, stressing his country’s role in the need for far-reaching political and economic reforms. “We understand that we need to implement these reforms first, for Ukraine, not for the EU.”
If EU leaders approve Ukraine’s request, it will be the first time the bloc has granted candidate status to a country at war.
As Ukraine’s defenders face intensifying Russian attacks in eastern Donbass, the ambassador urged Kyiv’s allies to provide heavy weapons and economic aid. “I think [the war] will last until [Vladimir] Putin understands that he must stop it. I mean Ukraine needs a lot of support both with heavy weapons, but also financial and economic support.
“Yes, our people are brave and the army is probably one of the strongest right now… But we have to support our people, [with] both the arms and the political support to politically isolate Russia, so it prefers not a military but a negotiated way out of the situation.