The European Union’s executive arm on Friday recommended making Ukraine a candidate for EU membership, a first step on what was expected to be a long road for the war-torn country to join the 27-nation bloc.
The European Commission delivered its proposal to award Ukraine candidate status after a fast-tracked analysis of answers to a questionnaire. The Ukrainian government applied for EU membership less than a week after Russia invaded the country on Feb. 24.
“Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective,” commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “We want them to live with us, the European dream.”
The leaders of the bloc’s existing members are scheduled to discuss the recommendation during a summit next week in Brussels. The European Commission’s endorsement, while a strong sign of solidarity with Ukraine, is likely to take years or even decades to materialize into EU membership.
Support from visiting leaders
Launching accession talks with a potential member requires unanimous approval from all member nations. They have expressed differing views on how quickly to add Ukraine to their ranks.
But Ukraine’s bid received a shot in the arm Thursday when the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Romania visited the country and vowed to back Kyiv in becoming an official candidate.
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To be admitted, potential newcomers need to demonstrate that they meet EU standards on issues such as fighting corruption and democratic principles and must absorb about 80,000 pages of rules covering everything from trade and immigration to fertilizer and the rule of law.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who had been skeptical about Ukraine’s membership bid, embraced the proposal.
“I think the commission has found a good compromise. There is a lot more homework in the field of the economy, but also in the field of the rule of law, in the field of tackling corruption.” Rutte said. “So this is the first step of many. But the Netherlands has decided with full conviction to follow the commission’s advice.”
The latest embrace of Ukraine by its European allies also marks another setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who launched his war nearly four months ago, hoping to pull his ex-Soviet neighbour away from the West and back into Russia’s sphere of influence.
Sanctions ‘didn’t work,’ Putin proclaims
At Russia’s showpiece economic forum in St. Petersburg on Friday, Putin reprised his usual defence of Russia’s war in Ukraine, falsely claiming that it was an act of self-defence. He has insisted before that his invasion was necessary to protect people in parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed rebels and to ensure Russia’s own security.
Putin said the U.S. “declared victory in the Cold War and later came to think of themselves as God’s own messengers on planet Earth.”
Russia came under a wide array of sanctions after sending troops into Ukraine in February, while hundreds of foreign companies suspended operations in Russia or pulled out of the country entirely.
“It didn’t work. Russian enterprises and government authorities worked in a composed and professional manner,” Putin said. “We’re normalizing the economic situation. We stabilized the financial markets, the banking system, the trade system.”
Putin noted that Russia’s projected inflation rate has fallen marginally but that the current projection of 16.7 per cent annually is still too high.
Russia reduced natural gas to Europe again on Friday, including cutting flows by half to Italy and Slovakia and completely to France, as countries have worked to ease their dependence on Russian supplies amid the war in Ukraine.
It marks the third day of significant reductions to the fuel that powers industry and generates electricity in Europe, which have also hit Germany and Austria. It has further spiked already-high energy prices that are driving record inflation in the European Union.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday that the reductions are “blackmail [against] both individual countries and Europe as a whole.”
Russia ‘pouring fire’ on Severodonetsk: governor
In another show of solidarity for Ukraine, Boris Johnson travelled to Kyiv to meet Zelensky, the second trip for the British prime minister to the country since the war began.
Zelensky has clamoured for more immediate support from allies in the form of more and better weapons to turn the tide on the battlefield in the country’s eastern Donbas region.
Russia pressed its offensive there on Friday, leaving desperate residents struggling to make sense of what the future holds for them.
“We are old people, we do not have a place to go. Where will I go?” asked Vira Miedientseva, one of the elderly residents grappling with the aftermath of an attack Thursday in Lysychansk, which lies just across the river from Severodonetsk, where a key battle is raging.
The Ukrainian military said Friday that Moscow’s troops kept up relentless attacks on both Sloviansk and Severodonetsk, two key cities that have been the focus on recent fighting. The military claimed that Ukrainian forces pushed Russian fighters out of the village of Bohorodychne, north of Sloviansk.
Russia and its allies say they have taken about half of Donetsk and nearly all of Luhansk — the two regions that make up the Donbas. Severodonetsk and surrounding villages are in the last pocket of Luhansk region still in Ukrainian hands.
“The Russians are pouring fire on the city,” said Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai. “It’s getting harder and harder for us to fight in Severodonetsk, because the Russians outnumber us in artillery and manpower, and it’s very difficult for us to resist this barrage of fire.”
The constant shelling made it impossible for 568 people, including 38 children, sheltering in the Azot chemical plant in the city to escape, he said.
Russian forces have destroyed all three bridges leading out of the city, but Haidai said it still had not been fully blocked off.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian navy claimed Friday that it destroyed a Russian boat carrying air defence systems to a strategic island in the Black Sea. In a statement on social media, the navy said that the Vasily Bekh was used to transport ammunition, weapons and personnel to Snake Island, which is vital for protecting sea lanes out of the key port of Odesa.