Volodymyr Zelenskiy has told a summit of national leaders this must be the year for decisions regarding Ukraine’s ambitions to join the European Union and Nato, warning that Russia “tries to swallow” neighbour countries left outside the circle.
The Ukrainian president crossed the nearby border to reach the gathering in neighbouring Moldova, an EU candidate country that has accused Russia of attempts to destabilise its democracy.
More than 40 leaders from across the European continent gathered for discussions on security co-operation at a vineyard in the village of Bulboaca, in a statement of commitment to multilateral co-operation and an implicit rejection of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Every European country that borders Russia and does not want Russia to tear it apart should be a full member of the EU and Nato,” Mr Zelenskiy told the summit. “There are only two alternatives to this. Either an open war, or creeping Russian occupation.”
He warned that Russia “tries to swallow” neighbouring states that are left outside the international alliances and said there were risks in letting the hopes of candidate countries languish unmet for too long.
“If even Ukrainians, who are proving our commitment to freedom and the values of a united Europe with blood, have not yet secured a clear positive answer about joining the EU and Nato, the hopes of the others are becoming completely elusive,” Mr Zelenskiy added.
“Think about this disappointment, and both this disappointment of our soldiers fighting for our freedom and those nations for whom our struggle in Ukraine is their hope.
“This year is for decisions,” concluded Mr Zelenskiy, whose government is pushing for Nato countries to issue Ukraine a membership invitation at a summit set to be held in Lithuania next month.
Ukraine’s Nato membership hopes were blocked in 2008, reportedly due to the opposition of France and Germany, and the prospect of it joining the military alliance is now deemed impossible while it is still at war.
But ahead of the summit, French president Emmanuel Macron said there should be a “path towards membership” for Ukraine and backed the idea of some kind of security guarantee short of full membership, perhaps akin to Nato’s relationship with non-member Israel.
Meanwhile, Moldova, which was named an EU candidate country together with Ukraine last year, is pushing for formal talks on joining the union to begin by the end of the year.
One of Europe’s poorest countries, Moldova sees membership as a route to greater prosperity and stability, and ahead of the summit tens of thousands of people gathered for a pro-EU rally in the capital Chișinău, waving Moldovan and EU flags.
Speaking at the summit, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Ireland was a strong backer of Moldova’s membership hopes but that any decision to begin talks would depend on an assessment of the Chișinău government’s progress in implementing reforms.
“We believe as a country that Europe has acted too slowly when it comes to enlargement in recent years,” Mr Varadkar told reporters. “We can’t water down our standards as a European Union. But we have to say to countries that if they meet those standards, well then they’re in, and they’re welcome.”
He recalled that Ireland had only briefly been in the queue for EU membership before it joined and warned of the political risks of countries turning away from Europe if they implement the requested changes and reforms but see no progress towards their hopes.
“I think that you can make countries wait too long. And if you make countries wait too long, then they may turn off the European path.”