Zelenskiy emphasises role of EU as he seeks faster delivery of weapons to fight off Russia

Ukrainian president says EU membership key part of what country is ‘fighting for’

In a standout moment during his visit to Brussels, Volodymyr Zelenskiy turned to European Union chiefs in front of the world’s media and appealed to them directly to advance his country’s membership “this year”, telling them it was a crucial part of what Ukraine is “fighting for”.

Zelenskiy was visiting the EU capital to join a meeting of the 27 national leaders in a rare trip out of Ukraine since the invasion, in the hopes of persuading European capitals to deliver weapons faster to help Kyiv fight back Russian troops.

The hope of EU membership is needed “to motivate our army”, the Ukrainian president told the chiefs of the EU Commission and Council, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, during a press conference, saying a future in the union was part of what “we are fighting for’”.

“That’s why we need it this year,“ Zelenskiy said as he turned to Michel to address him directly. “And this year, Charles, I mean this year: two zero twenty three.”


Michel responded to say he felt a heavy “responsibility”, before recalling that EU membership requires the unanimous support of all existing member states.

The reply underscored the challenge Ukraine faces as it scrambles to undertake reforms even as it fights a grinding war a year after Russia invaded its smaller neighbouring state.

The invasion revitalised the idea of adding new members to the EU, which had become moribund due to expansion fatigue in western Europe, by underscoring why a future in the union matters to eastern countries and the strategic importance of strong alliances in the region.

But there remains significant scepticism towards the idea in countries such as the Netherlands and Austria, while others feel it would be wrong to fast-track Ukraine ahead of countries that have been in the queue for longer, such as North Macedonia and Montenegro.

EU officials who returned from a visit to Kyiv last week were struck by how the Ukrainian leadership was deeply engaged in the details of the reform required to advance along the membership track, even as the country contends with bombing, blackouts and relentless attrition by Russia in its east as it throws troops into capturing the battered city of Bakhmut.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, reflecting Ireland’s marked support for Ukraine’s membership track among western European countries, said it was feasible for Ukraine to begin membership negotiations this year, a significant advance for a country that was granted official candidate status in June.

“I think we’ve all been enormously impressed by how the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people are doing everything they can to meet the test for membership,” Varadkar said.

“I don’t think we should dilute those tests. But if Ukraine satisfies the criteria for membership, well, then we should advance their application.”

The European Commission has set out seven steps Ukraine must take to advance its membership hopes, and president Ursula von der Leyen said that Kyiv’s anti-corruption strategy, judicial reforms and a new media law were “absolutely in the right direction”.

“More needs to be done, but it’s important to understand there is no rigid timeline. It is a merit-based process. So it’s up to the candidate country how far and how fast they reach the goals that are being set,” von der Leyen said.

Zelenskiy repeatedly mentioned how grateful he was for the work and support of ordinary citizens of the EU, saying the sheltering of Ukrainian refugees had “supported our resilience”.

“The European Union and leadership, and indeed the society of the European Union, all deserve a huge gratitude from us, from our state,” he said. “One of the reasons why I’m here is I have to give thanks.”

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times