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EU leaders back Ukraine but balk at fast-track membership

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VERSAILLES, France — EU leaders on Friday condemned Russia for “unprovoked and unjustified military aggression” and pledged unwavering support for Ukraine and for refugees fleeing the war, but they stopped short of putting Kyiv on a fast track to EU membership as requested by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

In a statement published after hours of debate at a European Council summit at the Palace of Versailles, the leaders “acknowledged the European aspirations and the European choice of Ukraine” and noted that its membership application had been “swiftly” transmitted to the European Commission for “its opinion” — the initial stage of a long process toward being declared a candidate country and beginning membership talks.

However, they also signaled a willingness to bring Ukraine closer to the EU politically while that process takes place: “Pending this and without delay, we will further strengthen our bonds and deepen our partnership to support Ukraine in pursuing its European path. Ukraine belongs to our European family.”

The statement was published shortly after 3 a.m., at the end of the first day of the two-day summit. There was no immediate reaction from the Ukrainian government.

While the statement was unequivocal in voicing the EU’s intention to help Ukraine, including with political and financial assistance and temporary protection for refugees, it did not offer the guarantee of membership that Zelenskyy had requested.

A number of EU countries, led by the Netherlands, had insisted that there was no way to shortcut the lengthy accession process, even for Ukraine, which is under active military attack by Russia.

“I think we all acknowledged the enormously difficult situation Ukraine is in,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said as he left the summit venue in the early hours of Friday morning. “Everyone is really shocked.”

Rutte insisted that the EU was already treating Ukraine’s application with unprecedented speed, but he said the Commission’s assessment “will take time — months, maybe years, before you get to anything.”

The leaders pledged an array of other assistance for Ukraine. European Council President Charles Michel highlighted a proposal to provide an additional €500 million in assistance through the EU’s so-called European Peace Facility, which is being used to provide military aid to Kyiv.

The leaders also promised to help rebuild Ukraine after the war — presuming the country still exists and has not been occupied by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his forces.

“We are committed to provide support for the reconstruction of a democratic Ukraine once the Russian onslaught has ceased,” the leaders stated. “We are determined to increase even further our pressure on Russia and Belarus. We have adopted significant sanctions and remain ready to move quickly with further sanctions.”

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda, whose country had advocated approving Ukraine’s membership bid on an expedited basis, tried to portray the outcome as a major breakthrough. “A historic night at Versailles,” he tweeted. “After five hours of heated discussions, EU leaders said yes to Ukrainian eurointegration.”

That general “yes,” however, was never in much doubt. The specifics were fudged through bureaucratic language.

On the treatment of Ukraine’s membership application, the leaders’ statement made reference to “the relevant provisions” of the EU treaties.

That allowed countries favoring Ukraine’s membership bid to claim a victory of sorts as the treaties set out the procedure for joining the bloc.

But the treaties also set out many other things — including the criteria for membership and the fact that countries can only join the EU with the unanimous consent of all existing members. 

In their statement, the leaders also noted that the Council had asked the Commission to issue an opinion on membership applications from Moldova and Georgia.

Suzanne Lynch and Giorgio Leali contributed reporting.

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