Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday delivered an emotional — and highly personalized — pitch for his war-torn country to join the EU, but his pleas were largely rebuffed by the bloc’s leaders, who offered sympathy but no new assurances.
Zelenskyy’s speech, delivered by videoconference, was his third address of the day to leaders of major Western powers who had gathered in Brussels for a historic trio of back-to-back-to-back summits of NATO, the G7 and the European Council, where Russia’s war against Ukraine was the main topic.
The Ukrainian president, who was an extremely popular comedian and television and movie actor before entering politics and winning election in 2019, has emerged as a master wartime communicator, and each of his speeches on Thursday was exquisitely tailored to the audience he faced.
To the leaders of the 30 allied NATO nations, he pleaded for additional military assistance, including tanks, fighter planes and other weapons. And to the leaders of the G7 club of rich democracies, he warned that Russia’s war could lead to an acute global food crisis by disrupting Ukraine’s agriculture sector.
The speech to the European Council was the latest in a series of pitches he has made for fast-track EU membership. But it was by far his most dramatic and personal.
Wearing the signature army-green T-shirt that he has donned since Russia’s full-scale invasion launched one month ago, Zelenskyy told the 26 heads of state and government in attendance that the war was also a clash of values — one in which Ukraine had proven itself to be worthy of membership in the EU.
Zelenskyy described how his country was providing medical treatment and food to Russian prisoners of war, allowing them to call their relatives to tell them they were alive, and that Ukraine was gathering the bodies of fallen Russian soldiers “which they simply leave, abandon. Hundreds and hundreds.”
Zelenskyy said his country has worked with the International Atomic Energy Agency to maintain the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, that it “invites journalists” to work freely in the country, documents evidence of war crimes, and holds a national moment of silence every day to honor those killed in the war.
“Have you heard anything like this on Russian television?” he asked, adding: “They are even ashamed of the word ‘war.’ They call it a ’special operation.’
“These are different worlds — we and they,” Zelenskyy continued. “These are different values. This is a different attitude to life. The Russian military does not see what dignity is. They do not know what conscience is. They do not understand why we value our freedom so much. This determines how the country will live. And who should be in Europe.”
Zelenskyy thanked the leaders for the EU’s united support of Ukraine, but he also said the bloc had not been quick enough to levy sanctions. He thanked Germany for blocking the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, adding: “But it was also a little late.”
Referring to Ukraine’s EU membership application, he pleaded: “Because during this month you have compared these worlds, and you see everything. You saw who is worth what. And you saw that Ukraine should be in the EU in the near future.”
The Ukrainian president then made his pitch more personal, focusing on specific countries and leaders and spelling out where he thought they stood in terms of support for his country. “Lithuania — for us. Latvia is for us. Estonia is for us. Poland is for us,” he said.
“France, Emmanuel [Macron], I really believe that you will be for us. Slovenia is for us. Slovakia — for us. The Czech Republic is for us. Romania knows what dignity is, so it will stand for us at the crucial moment. Bulgaria stands for us. Greece, I believe, stands with us. Germany … a little later. Portugal — well, almost … Croatia stands for us. Sweden — yellow and blue should always stand together. Finland — I know you are with us. The Netherlands stands for the rational, so we’ll find common ground. Malta — I believe we will succeed. Denmark — I believe we will succeed.”
He continued: “Luxembourg — we understand each other. Cyprus — I really believe you are with us. Italy — thank you for your support! Spain — we’ll find common ground. Belgium — we will find arguments. Austria, together with Ukrainians, it is an opportunity for you. I’m sure of it. Ireland — well, almost.”
But he had a tougher line for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has for years sought to cultivate close ties to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. “Hungary … I want to stay here and be honest. Once and for all,” Zelenskyy said.
“You have to decide for yourself who you are with. You are a sovereign state. I’ve been to Budapest. I adore your city. I have been many times — very beautiful, very hospitable city. And people, too. You have had tragic moments in your life. I visited your waterfront. I saw this memorial … Shoes on the Danube Bank,” he said, referring a monument to Hungarian Jews murdered during World War II.
“Listen, Viktor, do you know what’s going on in Mariupol? Please, if you can, go to your waterfront.”
Despite the heartfelt plea, the heads of state and government simply issued written conclusions that repeated their previous statement at a similar summit in Versailles, France, earlier this month — inviting the European Commission to give its opinion on Ukraine’s membership application, just one step in a years-long and uncertain process.
“The European Council reiterates its invitation to the Commission to submit its opinion in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Treaties,” the leaders stated. “The European Union will continue to provide coordinated political, financial, material and humanitarian support.”
In their conclusions, the leaders proclaimed a commitment to create a “Ukraine Solidarity Trust Fund” and to work with international partners to raise money “for the reconstruction of a democratic Ukraine” — a process that seems far off considering Russia’s continuing bombardment of cities and unrelenting attack.
At another point, in a line that is certain to infuriate Kyiv, the European Council said that it “calls on the Commission to continue to provide technical assistance in order to help Ukraine implement necessary reforms.”
In fact, before the war, Kyiv had been pushing to overhaul many aspects of government and society, including efforts to reform the banking and judicial sectors, to fight corruption, and align energy and other policies to EU standards and requirements. And the Ukrainian government has made clear its frustration at being told by the West that it needs to aim higher.
In his speech to NATO, Zelenskyy noted his country’s military successes against the much stronger invading Russian forces, and pointedly said: “Never, please, never tell us again that our army does not meet NATO standards.”
Some EU members, particularly from Central and Eastern Europe, have pushed to accelerate Kyiv’s EU bid. But others have been cooler on the idea.
Speaking as he left the European Council building in the early hours of Friday morning, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte put a damper on Kyiv’s hopes.
“EU accession is a process,” Rutte said. “There’s no fast-track procedure for accession. If we were to do that, we would turn the accession process into a political process, and that shouldn’t happen.”
Rutte warned that granting Ukraine a privileged role for EU accession would cause serious frustration among other countries that want to join the bloc, some of which are further along in the process: “The risk of such an acceleration is that the stability in the Western Balkans could be under threat because there are countries who also want [accession]: North Macedonia, Albania,” the Dutch leader said, adding: “It’s very sensitive.”
In the leaders’ conclusions, the European Council again condemned Russia and demanded an end to the war. “Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine grossly violates international law and is causing massive loss of life and injury to civilians,” the Council stated. “Russia is directing attacks against the civilian population and is targeting civilian objects, including hospitals, medical facilities, schools and shelters. These war crimes must stop immediately. Those responsible, and their accomplices, will be held to account in accordance with international law.”
On Thursday, the leaders were joined for part of their meeting by U.S. President Joe Biden. The summit will continue on Friday with a debate over energy policy.
Jacopo Barigazzi, Maïa de La Baume, Andrew Gray, Giorgio Leali and Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.