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Ukraine is fighting off Russian invaders to preserve the European “way of life,” Volodymyr Zelenskyy proclaimed Thursday in Brussels, making an impassioned case for his country to join the EU.
“I’m here in order to defend our people’s way home,” the Ukrainian president said from the lectern in the European Parliament, speaking to hundreds of EU lawmakers and top officials in a whirlwind visit dripping with symbolism.
“This is our Europe, these are our rules, this is our way of life, and for Ukraine, it’s a way home, a way to home,” he said. And that way home, he said, is the EU.
It was Zelenskyy’s first in-person address in Brussels since Russia’s full-scale invasion last year. And it came as part of a trip meant to cement Ukraine’s bond with the EU and Europe — the Ukrainian leader stopped off in Paris Wednesday night after a visit to London earlier in the day. Kyiv is hoping to join the EU in record time, as well as convince European countries to pledge more advanced weaponry as Russia prepares a renewed offensive.
In a speech that raised lawmakers to their feet and sparked several rounds of applause, Zelenskyy described a “Ukrainian-European way of life” underpinned by shared democratic and humanitarian values, while painting Russia as the opposite of everything the EU stands for.
“We are defending from the most anti-European force of the modern world, we Ukrainians on the battlefield together with you,” he said.
Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin sees its citizens merely as “bodies capable of carrying weapons,” the Ukrainian president said, accusing Russia of wanting to take Europe back to the darkest period of its history in the 1930s and 40s.
Ukraine and the EU share not just fundamental values but a common future, he argued. “Ukraine is going to be a member of the European Union,” he pronounced — a prediction that received rousing support all day, but perhaps not on the timeframe Zelenskyy is envisioning.
Making the rounds
After speeding off to attend a summit of EU leaders at the European Council, Zelenskyy’s tone became more demanding, as he urged governments to provide more military assistance, and fast.
“We need the artillery guns, the ammunitions, the modern tanks, the long-range missiles and modern fighter jets,” he told the EU’s 27 national heads of state and government.
While several countries have agreed to provide dozens of advanced tanks in recent days, Ukrainian officials say more weapons, including fighter jets, are needed as the war grinds into a second year.
“We have to enhance the dynamics of our cooperation — we have to do it faster than the aggressor that tries to mobilize its potential,” he said.
Zelenskyy also implored EU leaders not to slow down the sanctions pileup targeting Russia, a difficult subject for the bloc as sanctions fatigue — and even anti-sanctions sentiment — percolates in several places. Already, the EU has rapidly eschewed Russian energy and helped excise it from much of the global banking system.
“This is just the beginning,” Zelenskyy insisted. “We have to be more proactive.”
At a press conference after his remarks, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU would indeed hit Russia soon with more penalties, including fresh export bans to “starve Russia’s military machine,” as well as sanctions on military leaders, political figures and Russian “propagandists.”
Zelenskyy gets the red carpet
Zelenskyy’s whistle-stop visit to Brussels was also a coup for the Parliament, which had faced criticism earlier in the week for allegedly leaking the details of the trip ahead of schedule.
The full honors were laid out for the Ukrainian chief when he arrived for his Parliament address. A high-level delegation of Parliament officials including the body’s president, Roberta Metsola, EU Ambassador to Ukraine Matti Maasikas and Metsola’s Ukrainian intern met him on the red carpet. The Ukrainian national anthem blared from the speakers.
Metsola was the first leader of an EU institution to visit war-torn Kyiv last April. Zelenskyy thanked her personally in his speech, while also extending gratitude to all EU citizens who’ve supported Ukraine in the last year.
Ukrainian trainees from the European institutions were in the chamber, twice shouting back in unison, “Heroyam Slava!” (glory to the heroes) to Zelenksyy’s rallying cries of “Slava Ukraini!” (glory to Ukraine).
Some MEPs were dressed in the colors of Ukraine’s national flag, blue and yellow, while others held aloft posters declaring, “We stand with Ukraine.”
In a final, theatrical moment before leaving the chamber, Metsola unfurled an EU flag, handed it to Zelenskyy and they held it up together as MEPs cheered and clapped. “Ukraine is going to be a member of the European Union,” Zelenskyy said.
Earlier in her own speech, Metsola had echoed the prediction: “Ukraine is Europe and your nation’s future is in the European Union.”
Yet Zelenskyy didn’t receive any concrete promises when speaking with EU leaders, reflecting countries’ caution about shortening a process that normally stretches on for years.
Following his meeting with EU leaders, Zelenskyy laid out his aspirations, calling on the EU to open formal membership negotiations in 2023 — a process that can only begin after a bevy of EU-aligning reforms.
“When I say this year, I mean this year,” he exhorted during his press conference with von der Leyen.
But while von der Leyen praised Ukraine’s efforts thus far as an EU candidate, she declined to set a timeline for official negotiations to start.
“There is no rigid timeline,” von der Leyen said. “It’s a merit-based process.”