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'Work has to continue' on Ukraine's EU application, Ursula von der Leyen tells Zelenskyy

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Kyiv and met with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Kyiv and met with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Copyright European Union, 2023.
Copyright European Union, 2023.
By Jorge Liboreiro
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Ukraine's application to join the bloc is dependent on the completion of seven key reforms, including the fight against corruption.

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Marking Europe Day, Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Kyiv on Tuesday and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to demonstrate the European Union stands "shoulder to shoulder" with the war-torn nation as it fights to repel the invading Russian forces.

"Courageously, Ukraine is fighting for the ideals of Europe that we celebrate today," the European Commission president said during a joint press conference.

"In Russia, (Vladimir) Putin and his regime have destroyed these values. And now they are attempting to destroy them here in Ukraine because they are afraid of the success you represent and the example you show. And they are afraid of your path to the European Union."

Zelenskyy used the occasion to press on one of his country's top priorities: EU accession.

The Ukrainian leader urged the EU to speed up Ukraine's application to join the bloc, which is still in the early stages and remains contingent on the completion of seven reforms, such as the fight against corruption and the protection of national minorities.

Kyiv wants formal accession talks to begin sometime this year, an ambitious timeline that has privately caused concern among diplomats and officials in Brussels who worry the country is not yet ready.

"It's high time to remove artificial political opacity in the relations between Ukraine and the European Union," Zelenksyy said. "It is time for a positive decision to open negotiations on Ukraine's membership in the European Union."

On this request, von der Leyen trod carefully and said a preliminary "oral update" on Ukraine's progress would be presented to member states in June, followed by a detailed report in the autumn. The conclusions contained in this report will be the main basis for leaders to decide – by unanimity – whether to move forward.

"It is impressive to see that despite a full-blown war, Ukraine is working hard, tirelessly and intensively on the seven steps. A lot of progress has been made, but work has to continue," von der Leyen said.

"It is very important that we have progress. But I'm very confident because we had very good discussions on the different topics that are being addressed by these seven steps."

During the press conference, the Commission chief also unveiled more details of the upcoming round of EU sanctions against Russia, which are meant to address circumvention of the extensive list of penalties the bloc has imposed to cripple the Kremlin's war machine.

Brussels has grown increasingly concerned about a "growth of highly unusual trade flows" of EU-made goods towards China, Turkey, the South Caucasus and Central Asia, which are suspected of being re-routed to Russia in a breach of the existing prohibition.

"We are proposing a new tool to combat sanction circumvention: if we see that goods are going from the European Union to third countries and then end up in Russia, we could propose to the member states to sanction those goods export," von der Leyen explained.

"This tool will be a last resort and it will be used cautiously, following a very diligent risk analysis and after approval by EU member states. But there should be no doubt that we work against sanctions circumvention."

The sanctions will also target "shadow entities" that are set up in Russia and other countries with the purpose of enabling the evasion of bans.

Zelenskyy thanked the EU for its continued deliveries of ammunition and financial aid, and repeated his plea for Russia's nuclear sector to be included in the next round of sanctions, one of the most glaring omissions across the 10 packages approved since February 2022.

"Then the strength of this package will be proportional to the level of threat," he said, speaking in Ukrainian.

Von der Leyen admitted nuclear was excluded from the new proposal due to the entrenched dependency that some Eastern countries have on Rosatom, Russia's nuclear monopoly.

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"We are working very intensively with our member states to diversify away (from Russia) and to be independent," von der Leyen. "This is hard work, but some of the member states are making progress and you can rely on the fact that we will keep pushing all member states."

Another issue that featured prominently in their bilateral discussions was grain trade and the tariff-free regime the EU currently applies to Ukrainian exports.

Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria have complained about an influx of low-cost Ukrainian cereals entering the bloc and depressing prices for local farmers. The complaints lead to the introduction of unilateral bans that forced the European Commission to broker a temporary deal and resolve the controversy.

Under the agreement, four Ukrainian products – wheat, maize, rapeseed and sunflower seed – are allowed only transit through the five Eastern European countries, without being stored nor purchased for their domestic markets. 

The so-called "preventive measures," which in practice amount to a coordinated ban, will be in place until 5 June, when the tariff-free regime is set to be extended for another year and reinforced with an "expedited safeguard" to address market distortions in a speedier manner.

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"Restrictions on our exports are absolutely unacceptable," Zelenskyy said.

"We expect that the relevant problematic issues will be monitored and that no decisions will be taken without consultations with Ukraine. We expect strong European solutions in that context and that all the restrictions will be removed as soon as possible."

Von der Leyen said the situation was "challenging" and promised to achieve lasting remedies.

"The immediate priority now is that the grain transit goes seamlessly and at the lowest possible cost outside (of) Ukraine towards the European Union," von der Leyen said.

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