Analysis: In Brussels, Zelenskyy pitches EU values as Ukraine's way home

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed a full house of the European Parliament in Brussels.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed a full house of the European Parliament in Brussels. Copyright Olivier Matthys/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Jorge Liboreiro
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Volodymr Zelenskyy addressed a full house of the European Parliament and exalted the virtues of the European way of life.

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It was a moment that everybody in Brussels longed to see: President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine standing tall on the podium and addressing a full house of the European Parliament. 

For lawmakers, the occasion was solemn and poignant, the reflection of an ever-closer geopolitical bond between the bloc and the war-torn nation.

For Zelenskyy, though, it felt like a homecoming.

As he delivered his rousing speech, the Ukrainian leader spoke of the European Union as his country's rightful place, its natural habitat, almost as if it were already part of the 27-member club.

Zelenskky passionately exalted the European way of life and its paramount respect for the law, describing a continent where "borders are inviolable, but their crossing is not felt."

"When people believe in tomorrow and are willing to take to the streets to fight for their tomorrow," he told MEPs, evoking the popular protests that swept his country in 2014.

"This is our Europe. These are our rules. This is our way of life. And for Ukraine, it's a way home."

But this oasis of modern democracy is now under threat, he warned, as Russia wages a "total war" that aims to subjugate Ukraine's sovereignty and obliterate Europe's foundations along the way.

Without ever mentioning him by name, Zelenskky depicted Vladimir Putin as a "dictator" who leads the world's fiercest "anti-European force," a regime that "hates everything" and is willing to bring the horrors of bygone eras back into the 21st century.

"The sacred value of human life has been completely destroyed in Russia," Zelenskyy said, in a brief display of solidarity with everyday Russians who live under a government they are unable to contest.

"For the Kremlin, all 140 million citizens are just bodies capable of carrying weapons."

This is why, Zelenskyy reasoned before his audience, the defence of Ukraine as a free nation equals the defence of Europe as a free community.

"It is only our victory that will guarantee all of this – each of our common European values," he told MEPs. "Our imperative victory!"

Early in his speech, it became evident that the idea of EU values as a safe haven against Russia's brutal aggression was going to be the central leitmotif, a message accentuated by the Ukrainian leader standing still inside the only European institution directly elected by citizens.

Zelenskyy carefully steered clear from calls for more weapons and sanctions – which he left for his face-to-face talk with heads of state and government – and instead focused his allocated time on the universal virtues of freedom, integrity and equality, the same ideals that propelled the EU from a coal and steel community into a fully-fledged political and economic union.

"Perhaps some of you have not experienced the full power of the European way of life before," he said. "But now, together, Ukraine and the EU countries have made our power evident."

In what was arguably the most moving part of his spirited address, Zelenskky addressed ordinary Europeans to thank them for their continued support.

Police officers, rescue workers, teachers, scientists, doctors, farmers, SMEs, engineers, students, trade unions, NGOs, artists, lawyers, judges and journalists were among the professions the Ukrainian leader name-checked to express his gratitude.

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"The fate of Europe has never depended on politicians alone. There should be no such illusion now as well," he declared, ironically surrounded by politicians.

"Each and every one of you is important. Each and every one of you is strong. Each and every one of you can influence our common result. Our common victory."

The moment prompted an enthusiastic standing ovation from lawmakers and European Commissioners, but Zelenskky was quick to note the applause was "definitely" not for him but for all the Europeans who remain firm behind Ukraine in the "historic struggle."

In the speech's closing part, gratefulness and humility coalesced into defiance and grit, encapsulating the story of a country that fought its way back from the edge of annihilation.

"We do not rely on words – we act. We do not cower before the enemy – we stand. We do not waste time – we change ourselves and we make changes," Zelenskyy said.

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"Europe will always remain free. As long as we are together and as long as we care about our Europe – about our European way of life."

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