The European People's Party will pick a top candidate for this year's EU ballot later on Friday in Dublin. With an eye on Crimea, assembled leaders including Angela Merkel invited Yulia Tymoshenko and Vitaly Klitschko.
What was initially envisaged as a final continent-wide convention for conservative and right-leaning parties around the EU on Thursday became another opportunity for international leaders to address the tensions in Crimea and Ukraine.
The European People's Party (EPP) alliance, which includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, invited former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and former boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko to speak at the conference in Dublin.
"The Kremlin must understand that Ukraine is a state and not a territory," Tymoshenko told European center-right leaders including Merkel, Spain's Mariano Rajoy and Poland's Donald Tusk. "Ukraine is a sovereign nation that is free to join Europe. It is not a colony that will be driven into a cage."
According to the Reuters news agency, which reported that it had obtained a copy of the conservative bloc's draft statement ahead of its Friday release, the EPP was set to declare Ukraine had the right to apply for EU membership.
Klitschko's five-point plan
Tymoshenko, who was released from custody on February 22, told reporters after her speech that she rejected the proposal for a Crimean referendum on joining the Russian Federation, passed by the regional parliament earlier on Thursday.
"I would like to ask you whether one can have an open, fair and democratic referendum under Kalashnikov guns," she said. "Who will count ballots? Who will ensure that the people's free will was reflected? That's why this so-called referendum is illegitimate."
Recently-retired boxer and former Kyiv mayoral candidate Klitschko, meanwhile, listed five political targets he had for Ukraine: joining the EU, "immediate" negotiations with NATO, political reforms, more support for human rights and press freedom, and finally transparent presidential polls on May 25. DW correspondent Christoph Hasselbach reported from Dublin that Klitschko's first two goals might prove over-ambitious in the short-term.
Longstanding Germany-resident Klitschko spoke in German, calling on "all friends of Ukraine" to support the political and economic reform process, saying that "nothing has really changed in Ukraine over the past 20 years."
Juncker versus Barnier, and then Schulz
After an EU-wide turnout of only 43 percent in the 2009 European Parliament elections, parties will put forward a continent-wide "lead candidate" for the first time in this year's vote. The lead candidate from the most popular party will take up the role of European Commission president, currently held by Jose Manuel Barroso. The goal of this change is to increase both voter influence and interest.
Former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker is considered the favorite to win the EPP's nomination as its lead candidate for the May European Parliament elections. Juncker also led the Eurogroup, combining all finance ministers from the eurozone, playing a significant role in handling Europe's debt difficulties.
Michel Barnier, the former French foreign minister who now serves as the EU commissioner in charge of internal EU market regulation, is competing with Juncker for the nomination. Despite being considered an outsider, Barnier told reporters "I came here to win" on arrival in Dublin.
Whoever wins the center-right nomination will compete against German Social Democrat Martin Schulz, the current European Parliament president, for a five-year term as commission president.
The low turnout in 2009 has been highlighted as a particular danger for the European Parliament's makeup considering the prevalence of far-right and far-left parties that can often mobilize their supporters with comparative ease. In Germany, the Constitutional Court recently outlawed a 3-percent hurdle that German parties previously had to clear in order to win any European Parliament representation, removing one obstacle for fringe groups.
msh/lw (AFP, dpa, Reuters)