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Slovakia’s PM urges Germany to accept Ukraine as EU candidate

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BERLIN — Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger urged Olaf Scholz during a visit to Berlin to support Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova as EU membership candidates, while also calling on the German leader to see the horrors of war with his “own eyes.”

Heger visited the German capital Monday to lobby Scholz on behalf of the three countries ahead of a European Council summit next week where EU leaders are expected to discuss their membership bids. The European Commission is set to recommend granting Ukraine official status as an EU candidate country, according to several officials, but the final decision rests with the European Council.

Both Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron have previously warned that the EU should not fast-track the process for the trio, even amid Russia’s ongoing attack on Ukraine, which prompted them to apply to join the bloc.

“We have to realize that the enlargement is a must,” Heger told POLITICO and German daily Welt in a joint interview ahead of his bilateral meeting with Scholz. “The world needs Europe to be strong. And the countries are waiting.”

Later at a press conference with Heger, Scholz avoided giving a clear answer on Ukraine’s membership bid, only saying: “We as the EU continue what we have done so far: act in unity.”

The German chancellor has been much more outspoken when it comes to EU enlargement in the Western Balkans — an objective that he once again raised on Monday, while arguing that any further EU accession must go hand in hand with reforms to the bloc.

Heger said in the interview that accepting Ukraine or others as official EU membership candidates would just be the first step and that any further progress toward their actual inclusion in the bloc must be “merit-based.” He added: “We will not do any shortcuts, we will not lower the criteria.”

Some other EU leaders, including Macron, have suggested it would be more useful to grant Ukraine some sort of interim status that strengthens its relations with the EU, with the French president floating the idea of creating a European Political Community. Heger argued that Macron’s proposal, which would offer countries neighboring the EU a closer political and economic relationship with the bloc without becoming actual members, would not stand in conflict with his own push, but rather would be “actually very complementary.”

The Slovak leader added that any country should be able to apply for EU membership, but that only those that fully demonstrate the necessary will to implement the required democratic and institutional reforms should get there, while others might have to be downgraded to Macron’s political community as an alternative solution.

“Every country should be given the opportunity for individual effort for becoming a member of the EU. And depending on their effort, they will decide when they will become a member,” Heger said, stressing that “we have to have a certain form of relationship” with other types of countries.

The Slovak leader did not want to comment on whether Belgrade should be in line for such a potential downgrading: Serbia has been an EU membership candidate for years, but recently infuriated the bloc with its refusal to mirror EU sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine invasion.

Praising Scholz

Heger, who is from a relatively young anti-corruption party and has been in office for little more than a year, harshly criticized the EU’s previous policies toward Russia, including by his own country.

“We see that we have for long been compromising our values for cheap oil and gas,” he said, adding that this was a reason why Slovakia was still hugely reliant on Russian energy imports and had to request some exemptions from the EU’s oil embargo against Russia.

“But our approach is of course: We want to get disconnected from Russia as soon as possible. If I had a miracle ring, it would be done now. But I don’t. That makes it complicated,” he said.

Scholz has faced continued accusations from critics that he has acted too slowly to support Ukraine with weapons and heavy armory like tanks. But Heger made clear he did not want to join the chorus of criticism, including from Polish President Andrzej Duda, against the German chancellor.

“I don’t criticize the pace” of German weapon deliveries to Ukraine, he said, adding: “If some country needs more time to discuss and digest, that’s OK.”

He also lauded Berlin’s so-called Ringtausch tank swap scheme, under which Germany has offered to supply partner countries with its tanks if they send older Soviet-era gear to Ukraine, and particularly thanked Berlin for sending modern Patriot air defense missiles to Slovakia.

“Every help we provide — sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller — is good,” he said about Germany’s efforts.

Heger also welcomed reports that Scholz, who has not traveled to Kyiv since the Russian invasion began, is now planning to visit the Ukrainian capital later this month alongside Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

“It is something different to see it with your own eyes. Yes, what we see on TV is horrible already, but once you are there, you better understand the battle of the Ukrainians and what is going on. The brutality of the war. You see civilians’ houses bombed to ashes, you need to see it with your own eyes, to talk to the people to really understand this.”

He added: “The Ukrainians show their bravery, yes, but more important: They don’t have a choice now. We still can make choices, the Ukrainians can’t; they have to fight.”

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