Commission President: ‘Today, the EU and Ukraine are already closer than ever’

Commission President: ‘Today, the EU and Ukraine are already closer than ever’
Ukrainian military on the front line. Credit: Belga

In her speech on Tuesday afternoon at the European Parliament Plenary, on the sixth day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, European Commission Ursula von der Leyen stopped using diplomatic language in describing the aggression.

“War has returned to Europe,” she said in her speech. “Almost thirty years after the Balkan Wars, and over half a century after Soviet troops marched into Prague and Budapest, civil defence sirens again went off in the heart of a European capital. Thousands of people fleeing from bombs, camped in underground stations – holding hands, crying silently, trying to cheer each other up.”

This is a moment of truth for Europe, she said and quoted the editorial of one Ukrainian newspaper, the Kyiv Independent, published just hours before the invasion began: “This is not just about Ukraine. It is a clash of two worlds, two polar sets of values.”

They are so right, she said. “This is a clash between the rule of law and the rule of the gun; between democracies and autocracies; between a rules-based order and a world of naked aggression. How we respond today to what Russia is doing will determine the future of the international system. The destiny of Ukraine is at stake, but our own fate also lies in the balance.”

Today, a Union of almost half a billion people has mobilised for Ukraine, she said, and thanked especially Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary for welcoming these women, men and children. “Europe will be there for them, not only in these first days, but also in the weeks and months to come.

The Commission is proposing to activate the temporary protection mechanism to provide them with a secure status and access to schools, medical care and work. “They deserve it. We know this is only the beginning. More Ukrainians will need our protection and solidarity.  We are and will be there for them.”

“At the speed of light, the European Union has adopted waves of heavy sanctions against Russia’s financial system, its high-tech industries and its corrupt elite”, she underlined and referred to the packages of sanctions against Russia, the biggest sanctions package in EU’s history.

Despite American warnings of an “imminent” invasion, EU believed that Russia would not use its mobilised troops to actually start a war and did not heed Ukraine’s appeals to launch the sanctions before it was too late. But once the war erupted, EU acted swiftly, hoping that sanctions will change Kremlin’s cost-benefit calculations.

“I am well aware that these sanctions will come at a cost for our economy, too,” she admitted, especially after two years of the Coronavirus pandemic. “But I believe the people of Europe understand very well that we must stand up against this cruel aggression. Yes, protecting our liberty comes at a price. But this is a defining moment. And this is a cost we are willing to pay. Because freedom is priceless.”

In fact, the EU has not yet exhausted its arsenal of sanctions against Russia. In the current energy crisis, with some EU member states heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, EU still continues to import it, but also this may be banned following the diversification of natural gas and LNG imports to Europe from other countries.

President von der Leyen herself hinted to that in her speech. “We simply cannot rely so much on a supplier who explicitly threatens us. This is why we reached out to other global suppliers. And they responded. Norway is stepping up. In January, we had a record supply of LNG gas. We are building new LNG terminals and working on interconnectors.“

In the long run, it is EU’s switch to renewables and hydrogen that will make it truly independent. EU has to accelerate the green transition. “Because every kilowatt-hour of electricity Europe generates from solar, wind, hydropower and biomass reduces our dependency on Russian gas and other energy imports. This is a strategic investment. And on top, less dependency also means less money for the Kremlin’s war chest.”

“When we are resolute, Europe can rise up to the challenge. The same is true on defence.”  Most member states have promised deliveries of military equipment to Ukraine. Germany, her home country, which in the beginning of the crisis was unwilling to deliver weapons to Ukraine because of its historical legacy, has announced that it will meet the 2% goal of NATO as soon as possible.

She also directly addressed Russian citizens protesting against the war. Russia has reached a crossroads, she said, since” the actions of the Kremlin are severely damaging the long-term interests of Russia and its people”.

“More and more Russians understand this as well. They are marching for peace and freedom. And how does the Kremlin respond to this? By arresting thousands of them. But ultimately, the longing for peace and freedom cannot be silenced. There is another Russia besides Putin’s tanks. We extend our hand of friendship to this other Russia.”

She also turned directly to Ukraine. “The Ukrainian people are holding up the torch of freedom for all of us. They are showing immense courage. They are defending their lives. But they are also fighting for universal values and they are willing to die for them. President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people are a true inspiration.”

Referring to her recent telephone call with President Zelensky, she addressed Ukraine’s application for EU membership and “his people’s dream to join our Union”. Without using the word “European perspective”, she said that, “Today, the EU and Ukraine are already closer than ever.”

But there is still a long path ahead. “We have to end this war. And we should talk about the next steps. But I am sure: Nobody in this hemicycle can doubt that a people that stands up so bravely for our European values belongs in our European family.”

“Long live Europe. And long live a free and independent Ukraine - My z vamy. Slava Ukraini. Mez wame. Slava Ukrainije,” she concluded her speech.

While a Russian convoy of tanks and troops is closing in on Kyiv, time is running out for a cease-fire. In a video link to the European Parliament, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed for immediate help and urged the EU to "prove that you are with us.”

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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