EU leaders gathered at Versailles for a two-day summit starting Thursday on how to address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine amid calls from Kyiv for a fast-tracked path to membership in the European bloc.
EU leaders doused Ukraine’s hopes gaining membership of the European Union quickly on Thursday, as they met to urgently address the fallout of the Russia’s invasion.
The meeting at the palace of Versailles was set to be the high point of France’s six-month EU presidency, but President Emmanuel Macron is instead leading a crisis summit following Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s brutal disruption of decades of stability in Europe.
The Ukraine war and the EU’s energy supply were to dominate the two-day meeting, with leaders sitting down for dinner in the same Hall of Mirrors where Western allies carved out a new map of Europe in 1919 after World War I.
“Europe will change even faster and stronger with the war (in Ukraine)”, Macron said as he greeted his counterparts at the former residence of France’s Sun King, Louis XIV.
The 27 heads of state and government met as fighting raged for a 15th day in Ukraine, with an outcry over the bombing of a maternity hospital in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the attack as a Russian “war crime”. Moscow denied carrying it out, calling it a “staged provocation” by Ukraine.
Macron dubbed it a “disgraceful act of war”, with leaders from across the bloc condemning the atrocity and Spain calling it a “war crime” that demanded punishment.
The conflict has seen a swell of support in the EU for Ukrainian President Zelensky, but leaders used the talks to reiterate that a speedy track to membership was impossible.
“There is no such thing as a fast track,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said as he arrived for the talks.
“I want to focus on what can we do for Volodymyr Zelensky tonight, tomorrow, and EU accession of Ukraine is something for the long term, if at all,” he added.
Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel warned against giving Kyiv the impression that “everything can happen overnight”.
Even before the war, Macron’s ambition for the summit was to lay down a path to strengthen Europe’s stature on the world stage.
The issue took greater significance with Russia’s war on the bloc’s eastern edge and leaders were to explore ways to shore up Europe’s self-reliance in a starkly more dangerous world, especially on energy.
The conflict has seen energy prices skyrocket, threatened the economy and sparked a pressing discussion on where Europeans can turn for gas and oil.
The EU imports about 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia with Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, especially dependent on the energy flow, along with Italy and several central European countries.
About a quarter of the EU’s oil imports also come from Russia.
Europe’s dependency on Russian energy even caused the first crack in the West’s unified response to Putin’s aggression, with the EU this week shying away from a ban on Russian oil imports implemented by the United States and Britain.
According to a draft of the meeting’s final declaration, the 27 leaders will cautiously agree to “phase out” the bloc’s dependency on Russian gas, oil and coal.
The EU leaders will also try to advance on ways Europe can gain independence in highly sensitive sectors, including semiconductors, food production and most notably defence.
Collective security in the European Union is primarily handled by the US-led NATO alliance, but France, the EU’s biggest military power, would like the bloc to play a bigger role.
Since Russia’s belligerence against its pro-EU neighbour, bloc members have approved a total of half a billion euros in defence aid to Ukraine.
Berlin dramatically broke with long-standing doctrine when it announced it will plough 100 billion euros into national defence.
In view of the challenges, “we must resolutely invest more and better in defence capabilities and innovative technologies”, the leaders were expected to say.