Kyiv’s EU envoy says Ukraine candidate status would send clear signal to Russia

Granting Ukraine candidate status to join the EU would be a historic decision signalling to Russia it can no longer claim a sphere of influence over its eastern neighbour, Kyiv’s ambassador to Brussels has said.

Vsevolod Chentsov, the head of Ukraine’s mission to the EU, said Russia’s war had united Kyiv with the bloc, while ending what he called a “mistake” about whether his country could belong to the union.

Speaking to the Guardian ahead of a historically charged EU summit on Thursday, he said for many years Ukraine had been seen as a bridge or a buffer state rather than a potential member.

A decision on candidate status would “kill finally, this ambiguity, what is Ukraine for the EU: whether we are building a common house or not … I think now finally there is clarity.”

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EU leaders will decide on Thursday whether to grant Ukraine candidate status, following a positive recommendation from the European Commission last Friday. Expectations for a yes have grown since four EU leaders, including France and Germany, which had been perceived as among the most lukewarm, visited Kyiv last week in a show of support.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, filed an application to join the EU five days after Russia’s attack began. On a day when blasts were heard in Kyiv, Zelenskiy called for “immediate accession under a new special procedure”. While the initial response from about 10 EU states was deeply sceptical, opposition has fallen away, although questions remain about the long road ahead.

Ukraine has been seeking EU membership since the 2004 “orange revolution” and more insistently since the 2013-14 Maidan protests, when the pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted after he refused to sign an association agreement with the bloc.

The decision to apply for EU membership on 29 February 2022 carried the same logic as the Maidan protests, Chentsov said: “Ukraine fights for independence and European future. And at the end of February, it just reached its highest point with the Russian full-fledged and open invasion of Ukraine.

“We need this clarity [on EU membership] to support the Ukrainian army, Ukrainian society, morally, psychologically, and to get the clear feeling and understanding of the direction of movement for Ukraine.”

Before the war, EU membership was not an option for the country of 41 million that was beset by corruption. The EU’s association agreement with Kyiv describes Ukraine as “a European country [that] shares a common history and common values”, but avoided mentioning membership.

Russia’s war had changed perceptions of Ukraine for EU governments and their voters, the ambassador suggested. “This war basically united us with the EU on all possible levels: government to government, but mainly people to people.”

He said “the fact that Europeans, citizens of the EU, receive Ukrainians like their brothers, they live under one roof” had been very important in changing perceptions of whether Ukraine could be an EU member. “It’s not a strange country, we are not strange people. We are the same, we are sharing the same understanding of this world.”

A survey published this week by the European Council on Foreign Relations, a thinktank, showed 57% of Europeans backed Ukraine’s membership bid. Poland was most supportive with 70% in favour; in Germany, France and Italy, however, support was below 50% – at 48%, 47% and 46% respectively – although still outweighed opposition.

Zelenskiy had warned the EU to expect an increase in hostilities from Russia during the week of talks on Ukraine’s candidate status. His ambassador said the bloc should not make its decisions based on trying to anticipate the Kremlin’s thinking. Unnamed EU capitals had made a “big mistake” in the past, he argued, by always “look[ing] at what Russia thinks and what Russia will do”.

Some still faced a “psychological blockage”, he said, when it came to sending arms to Ukraine. “The psychological blockage is to face reality that they really need to support Ukraine to fight Russia effectively. Many countries could not imagine that they could provide arms to fight Russia and now they are getting there.”

If Ukraine is granted candidate status it would take years to join the EU. The ambassador backed proposals from France to create a “European political community”, an organisation to unite EU countries with past and prospective members on security, energy and opportunities for young people.

The French proposals were “a helpful initiative … to avoid the vacuum, the gap between current status and future membership”, the ambassador said while declining to say how long membership talks might take.

“Definitely it will take some time,” Chentsov said, stressing his country’s own role in needing to carry out far-reaching political and economic reforms. “We understand that we have to implement those reforms first of all, for Ukraine, not for the EU.”

If EU leaders approve Ukraine’s request, it will be the first time the bloc has granted candidate status to a country at war.

As Ukraine’s defenders face intensifying Russian attacks in eastern Donbas, the ambassador urged Kyiv’s allies to supply heavy weapons and economic aid. “I think [the war] will last to the moment when [Vladimir] Putin understands that he has to stop it. I mean that Ukraine needs a lot of support both with heavy weapons, but also financial and economic support.

“Yes, our people are brave and the army is probably one of the strongest now … But we need to sustain our people, [with] both the weapons and political support to isolate Russia politically, so it prefers not a military but a negotiated outcome of the situation.”