‘We are paying the price of freedom,’ says Zelenskiy

Standing ovation at extraordinary European Parliament session but West rules out no-fly zone

The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine and support its European ambitions in an extraordinary session during which President Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivered a searing address to the chamber by video link from the front line.

The English language interpreter struggled through sobs as he related Mr Zelenskiy’s words to the gathered MEPs. Many of these were draped with Ukrainian flags or held up signs expressing solidarity with the embattled country.

“We have a desire to see our children alive. I think it’s a fair one,” said Mr Zelenskiy. He said he was speaking in a break between missile strikes and that dozens of people had been killed in a missile strike on the central square of the city of Kharkiv that morning.

“This is the price of freedom,” he told the MEPs. And he urged them to stand with his country in solidarity and support the aspirations of EU alignment that had angered Moscow.

Mr Zelenskiy’s speech was greeted with a standing ovation and the EU’s top leadership described it as a turning point in the history of the union as they addressed the parliament.

"I think this is the moment in which the geopolitical union is being born," said EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said European security and defence "has evolved more in the last six days than in the last two decades. This is a clash between the rule of law and the rule of the gun. Between democracies and . . . how we respond today to what Russia is doing will determine the future of the international system."

She ended her address with the words “long live Europe”, adding in Ukrainian “we’re with you, glory to Ukraine”.

The resolution condemning the invasion was passed overwhelmingly by the parliament, with 637 MEPs voting in favour, 26 abstentions and 13 voting against.

MEPs Daly and Wallace

Among the 13 were Left group Independent MEPs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace, who disagreed with supportive mentions of Nato and defence spending in the text. "The establishment in the EU and its member states is manipulating public anger to accelerate militarisation," they said in a statement.

All other Irish MEPs voted in favour, including Luke Ming Flanagan and Sinn Féin's Chis MacManus, who are also in the Left group.

“The unprovoked, illegal attack inflicted on Ukraine by Russia must be condemned in the strongest possible way. It goes without saying that it is completely unjustified and reprehensible, it would be morally wrong to say otherwise,” said Fine Gael’s leader in the parliament Seán Kelly.

The resolution called for EU institutions to work towards making Ukraine a candidate for membership “on the basis of merit”, a carefully worked out compromise wording that takes into account hesitation among western European countries towards adding new members. It called for military aid for Ukraine and for sanctions to go further in seizing the assets of oligarchs, hitting state-funded Moscow channels that spread propaganda and to wean the EU off its gas dependency.

While the EU has approved an unprecedented fund to buy weapons for Ukraine, its members do not want to enter the conflict directly.

Nato has long ruled out sending troops to defend the non-member state. Ukrainians have now appealed for the alliance to impose a no-fly zone to prevent a feared intensification of Russian bombing as the ground assault encounters resistance. But on a visit to Poland and Estonia, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said planes would not be deployed, echoing statements by Britain and the United States ruling out a no-fly zone.

“Nato is not to be part of the conflict,” he said, calling for Russia to withdraw its troops. “Nato is not going to send the troops into Ukraine or move planes into Ukrainian airspace.”

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times