Leaders of the European Union have condemned the “unspeakable suffering” Russia has inflicted on Ukraine, but refused Kyiv’s appeal for rapid accession to the bloc as they met to urgently address the fallout of Moscow’s assault on its neighbour.
The Russian invasion – the biggest assault on a European state since World War II – has upended Europe’s security order and spurred EU capitals into rethinking what the bloc should stand for, and its economic, defence and energy policies.
The EU was swift in imposing sweeping sanctions and offering political and humanitarian support to Ukraine, as well as some arms supplies, in the days after Russia attacked on February 24.
However, cracks have appeared in the bloc’s united front, from its reaction to Kyiv’s demand for an accelerated membership of the club to how fast it can wean itself off Russian fossil fuels and how best to shape an economic response.
“Nobody entered the European Union overnight,” Croatia Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said, as talks among the 27 national leaders ended in the early hours on Friday.
European Council President Charles Michel said, in a show of sympathy and moral support: “Ukraine belongs to the European family.”
But others made clear Ukraine would not be allowed to join hastily, something Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has sought and which has some support from Ukraine’s neighbours on the EU’s eastern flank.
“There is no fast-track process,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a prominent opponent of EU enlargement, while adding the bloc would continue deepening ties with Kyiv.
“I want to focus on what can we do for Volodymyr Zelenskyy tonight, tomorrow, and EU accession of Ukraine is something for the long term – if at all,” he said.
Nor could the door to accession be closed, said French President Emmanuel Macron.
“Can we open a membership procedure with a country at war? I don’t think so. Can we shut the door and say: ‘never’? It would be unfair. Can we forget about the balance points in that region? Let’s be cautious.”
Russian oil and gas
Joining the EU is a process that usually takes years and requires meeting strict criteria from economic stability to rooting out corruption to respecting liberal human rights.
Still, some former Eastern Bloc countries wanted a firmer signal towards EU membership, led by Poland which has seen 1.5 million Ukrainians refugees pour over its border.
There are those “who think that … Ukrainians are fighting for their lives and (deserve) a strong political message … and those who are still debating the procedures,” said Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa.
Russia’s invasion, which Moscow calls a special military operation, has shattered Europe’s post-war security order that emerged from the ashes of World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
More than two million people have fled the country, thousands of civilians have been killed, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops laid siege to several Ukrainian cities.
“It is a war crime,” Roberta Metsola, president of the European Parliament, told the leaders.
Some EU leaders pushed for tougher sanctions that would hit Russia’s oil and gas industries even if that meant repercussions for those European nations reliant on Russian fossil fuels.
The EU imports about 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia with Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, especially dependent on the energy flow, along with Italy and several central European countries.
About a quarter of the EU’s oil imports also come from Russia.
Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins, whose country shares a border with Russia, said cutting off Russian oil and gas would be the most effective way to get Putin to the negotiating table.
“We should go much further and much faster,” Karins said.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz did not comment on whether the bloc should ban Russian oil imports, which Berlin has ruled out so far. Russia supplies about a third of Germany’s gas and crude requirements.
But the EU should stop using Russian fossil fuels by 2027, European Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen said, adding she would propose a road map for that in mid-May.
The leaders resume talks at 09:00 GMT on Friday to consider policy to tackle defence and energy spending related to the war in Ukraine.
They will also try to advance on ways Europe can gain independence in highly sensitive sectors, including semiconductors and food production.
Since Russia’s invasion of its pro-EU neighbour, bloc members have approved a total of half a billion euros in defence aid to Ukraine.
Berlin dramatically broke with long-standing doctrine when it announced it will plough 100 billion euros ($110bn) into national defence.
“The war in Ukraine is an immense trauma … But it is also most definitely something which is going to lead us to completely redefine the structure of Europe,” said Macron.