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EU holds talks with Ukraine in an active war zone

February 1, 2023

For the first time ever, the EU will hold talks with a candidate state in an active war zone. The decision to travel to Kyiv is considered to be of huge symbolic value. But what can Kyiv expect?

EU Commission President von der Leyen standing together with the Ukrainian President Zelenskyy during her visit to Kyiv, Ukraine, in mid-September.
The EU-Ukraine summit in Kyiv is meant to reflect the bloc's unwavering support for Ukraine Image: Efrem Lukatsky/AP/dpa/picture alliance

It will be the biggest EU delegation Kyiv has welcomed since the beginning of Russia's invasion. 16 EU commissioners, including Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the bloc's chief diplomat, Josef Borrell, as well as Council President Charles Michel, will take a train trip through the war-torn country. The commissioners will hold talks with Ukrainian government ministers in Kyiv on Thursday, followed by an EU-Ukraine summit in the Ukrainian capital on Friday.

"It is obviously a very strong symbol," Marie Dumoulin, director of the Wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former French diplomat, told DW. "That's probably the way the EU institutions wanted it to be." By holding the meetings in Kyiv, Dumoulin said, EU leaders demonstrate "we are not afraid to come. We are ready to do this for you."

Military assistance on the agenda

Dumoulin said she expects military and financial assistance to be on the meetings' agenda. The EU and its members have already delivered weapons and military equipment worth €11.5 billion ($12.5 billion) to Ukraine. The bloc is also slated to provide €18 billion in financial support in 2023, with a first tranche of €3 billion already disbursed. Money that is supposed to help the government in Kyiv keep paying wages and pensions and maintain essential public services running.

Soldiers operating a howitzer
Military and financial aid for Ukraine will be on the agenda of the meetings between EU institutions and the Ukrainian leadership in KyivImage: Metin Aktas/AA/picture alliance

"There are other discussions that will probably take place during the summit about the support for recovery and reconstruction," said Dumoulin. She pointed out that structures are already being put in place to coordinate donors and the overall reconstruction process. Beyond that, however, she expects only moderate progress from the summit in Kyiv in terms of tangible results.

However, Rosa Balfour, director of the Carnegie Europe think tank, thinks the summit cannot be only symbolic. "They need to have some tangibles," she said, emphasizing how far the bloc has already gone in supporting Ukraine and how Kyiv is continuously increasing pressure on Brussels to do more. 

"What used to be an ambiguous European policy towards Eastern Europe has now become a clear statement that Ukraine is a part of Europe and has a prospect of joining the bloc," Balfour said. Ukraine applied for EU membership days after Russia invaded on February 24 last year, and was granted candidate status in June 2022.

Balfour emphasized how "very quickly and thoroughly" authorities in Kyiv went through the process of being recognized as a candidate country. "The Ukrainian government really is, as the Americans say, walking and chewing gum at the same time. It's conducting a war, but it also has a plan for legislative reforms that are necessary in order to join the European Union," she said.

Fast-track accession for Ukraine?

The summit is meant to acknowledge these efforts and to encourage Ukraine to continue with reforms, so that one day they fulfill conditions required for EU membership, two EU officials told DW. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's 10-point peace plan is expected to be discussed in Kyiv, as well as the idea to create a special tribunal to hold Russia's leadership accountable for its war of aggression.

However, speaking with DW, the EU officials also emphasized that the Ukrainian government might need to manage their expectations regarding the speed of the accession process.

Balfour said the message will have to be that there is full support from the Europeans for Ukraine, but that this process will take time. She cited a recent interview with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, in which he spoke of an ambitious plan to join the EU within the next two years. "There won't be a fast-track accession for Ukraine," Balfour said, "but it's important to offer Ukraine incentives to continue with its reforms and to address current problems."

Von der Leyen: 'It's crucial to keep Ukraine up and running'

Carrots and sticks to keep going

Balfour described corruption as one of the major problems that is at the top of the agenda of European policy makers, especially when it comes to mobilizing massive financial resources that will soon be needed for the reconstruction of the country. The European Commission has highlighted what it sees as "the reform momentum" in Ukraine, but some member states seem to question whether considerable progress has really been made.

However, Balfour said she did not expect the recent corruption scandal that led to the resignations and sackings of several government officials to overshadow the summit. Both sides, Ukraine and the EU, Balfour pointed out, "need to keep public opinion supportive of the support for Ukraine. We don't necessarily want to talk publicly about the underlying problems such as corruption because there is a question of morale. Morale that needs to be kept up for the Ukrainians, but also for the Europeans." 

A positive message to show for?

Balfour referred to some areas where announcements might be made, regarding further lowering customs duties, for instance, or bringing Ukraine into the EU free roaming zone for mobile phones.

"These are hardly big prizes, but I think there will be movement. Both sides want to come out with a positive message for their domestic audiences and for each other." Even if Kyiv will not get a fast track towards joining the European Union, Balfour said, the government will have something to show for to the Ukrainians.

Edited by: Rob Mudge

Kyiv calls to West for more help