EU leaders aimed to ensure Ukraine doesn’t slip from the top of the political agenda as they gathered in Brussels on Thursday for a summit set to be dominated by the crisis engulfing the Gaza strip.
Diplomats have been busy ironing out a joint position by the 27-country bloc on the Gaza conflict, including a potential call for a humanitarian pause to facilitate the flow of aid, in preparation for the summit.
But leaders stressed the need to maintain attention on the other war on Europe’s doorstep, warning that distraction from Ukraine would play into the hands of the Kremlin.
“This should not take our attention away from Ukraine, this is exactly what Putin wants,” European President Roberta Metsola warned as she arrived for the meeting.
"It's key for us to make very clear that we support Ukraine for as long as it takes," European Council President Charles Michel said.
Lithuania's Gitanas Nausėda and Estonia's Kaja Kallas, both staunch advocates of EU support to Ukraine, also said keeping the attention on support to Ukraine is critical.
Europe “has no right for war fatigue," Nausėda said. “My message today is to keep supporting Ukraine, despite the fact that we have another hot spot,” he added, saying that it was important for the EU not to “split its foreign policy.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy dialled into the start of the meeting by videolink, as has been the tradition since the start of Russia's aggression. During the evening, leaders are expected to discuss a €50-billion envelope in financial support to Ukraine, proposed by the Commission as part of a top-up to its long-term budget, as well as ways of seizing frozen Russian assets to finance Ukraine's recovery.
EU unity on Ukraine falters
The EU’s diplomatic front in support of Ukraine has recently shown signs of unravelling, with Hungarian President Viktor Orbán seen cosying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a recent visit to China. On Thursday, Hungary’s foreign minister Péter Szijjártó attended a security conference in Belarus, a close ally of Russia.
Responding to Orbán and Putin’s encounter, Lithuania's Nausėda said it is "more than strange to see that we start to flirt with a regime which is committing very cruel atrocities on the territory of Ukraine."
The newest of the bloc’s 27 heads of state Robert Fico - sworn in as Slovakia's Prime Minister just in time for the EU summit on Wednesday - announced hours ahead of the summit he would halt his country’s military aid to Ukraine, following up on promises made during his electoral campaign. Fico leads a coalition government that includes a pro-Russian far-right party.
EU leaders are gearing up to avoid a watering down of EU support to Ukraine amidst fears of Orbán and Fico-led vetoes.
European Parliament President Roberta Metsola told reporters after addressing leaders that she "had to believe" there would be continued unity among EU leaders, despite signs of fragmentation.
"I continue to hope that the unanimity that was found in the past can still be found," Metsola said, adding that she was in discussions with countries risking to take a "different path."
The latest draft conclusions of the summit seen by Euronews include no less than fourteen paragraphs on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which include a call for continued and accelerated military support to Ukraine.
Military support is seen as critical to prop up Ukraine's military forces, which have received unprecedented levels of support from European and Western governments since the start of the war, including ammunition, weapons, tanks and fighter planes.
But the EU appears on track to miss its pledge, made in late March, to deliver one million rounds of ammunition in 12 months, with just one-third of the target delivered in the past six months.
Leaders to discuss financial support and frozen assets
The €50 billion pot of financial support to Ukraine under discussion on Thursday needs the unanimous blessing of all 27 leaders to be released, but is currently being blocked by Hungary.
The funds would be part of a broader revision of the EU's long-term budget, amounting to around €100 billion in grants and loans.
Lithuania's Nausėda said €50 billion in financial support to Ukraine is “insufficient” and that the bloc needs to find a more permanent means of financing the war-torn country.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said she would press on leaders to find a path forward to rubber stamp the funds, and said she was hopeful that Hungarian opposition was simple posturing.
“He (Orbán) has been quite critical of support to Ukraine, but he has been part of it. So I hope that Hungary continues to be part of it," Kallas said, adding she would also encourage leaders to seek an agreement on the seizure of Russian assets.
The EU is currently looking into the feasibility of using proceeds from immobilised Russian assets to help rebuild Ukraine and to compensate victims for the losses suffered at the hands of Russia. But the use of immobilised assets is a minefield for Western countries given legal and economic complications.