In an interview with NV President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen gives the reasons why the European Union needs Ukraine, why it has all the chances to win the war and why Brussels is providing Kyiv with such large-scale financial assistance.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Kyiv on April 8 to meet with Ukraine's political leaders. She first visited the town of Bucha in Kyiv Oblast, known for its good housing estates and young demographics, where the Russian army had recently committed atrocities against the civilian population.
During her visit to Bucha, von der Leyen was accompanied by Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, and immediately afterwards she met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The meeting took place amid the news that Ukraine might soon become a member of the European Union. In addition, the European Union provides billions of euros in economic support to Ukraine.
Von der Leyen is a former German defense minister, so she is well aware of the importance of strengthening Ukraine's defense capabilities just as Russian troops continue to fight against the Ukrainian army. As head of the European Commission in 2019, she gradually expanded the importance of this institution in the EU system of government.
It was the European Commission that was the engine of the continent's economic support during the coronavirus crisis.
And now, during the Russian war against Ukraine, the European Commission continues to act as a coordinator of assistance programs for Ukraine – its government agencies, its economy, its armed forces, its society. The European Union has already received millions of Ukrainian citizens and is ready to do much to make them feel at home in the EU – to help with jobs, income and, if necessary, recognition of their diplomas, even in a specific field such as medicine.
The European Union is not only helping Ukraine, but also putting pressure on Russia, primarily through sanctions. The recent sanctions package cut off Russia's large state-owned bank, VTB, from the European financial system, but it was not the end. What anti-Russian sanctions should be expected next, how soon Ukraine will join the European Union, whether it is time to introduce the euro for the Ukrainian financial system and why Brussels believes in Ukraine's victory in the war – the European Commission chief told about all this in an interview with NV.
Madam President, the European Union's support for Ukraine, its independence and territorial integrity during the war came as a surprise not only to Russia and Vladimir Putin, but also to many Ukrainians who thought the EU was divided after the migration crisis, Brexit and other events. How did you, the president of the European Commission, manage to build a pan-European consensus on Ukraine and its future?
Ukraine upholds our values, sovereignty, territorial integrity, human dignity, and democracy. We defend this belief. In fact, Putin has seriously miscalculated how strong and unanimous Europe's response to his brutal and unwarranted invasion will be. He tried to sow discord between us. He achieved the exact opposite. The European Union has never been so unanimous in its goal. And this goal was to support Ukraine and its courageous people.
Since 2014, the EU and Ukraine have developed strong ties based on our common history and shared values. Our Association Agreement has brought our economies and societies closer together. And now the possibility of Ukraine's accession to our Union has been launched thanks to an application submitted by President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Please explain your vision of Russia's war against Ukraine, which has a truly tragic cost of human lives on both sides. The Russian army and its aggressive actions have caused such damage to Ukraine, its people and economy that it may take years to recover from the war. Do you believe that Ukraine will restore peace on its sovereign territory and what is needed for this?
Russia has waged a brutal and ruthless war not only against the courageous armed forces, but also against the civilian population of Ukraine. History will engrave the determination and courage of the Ukrainian people who defend their freedom and independence. Putin's unjustified war is being defeated. And we will stand side by side with Ukraine in its reconstruction for as long as it takes. After all, family members take care of each other.
Today, all our efforts are focused on stopping the bloodshed and providing vital humanitarian and financial assistance to Ukraine. We will also be around during the rebuilding.
As the political leader of the European Union, do you feel that Europe remains sufficiently consolidated with regard to Ukraine, which is indeed waging a difficult, technically exhausting war against the Russian army, which has more personnel, more tanks and more armored vehicles?
Russia may have more weapons, but it does not have the courage of the people of Ukraine who are fighting for freedom. Like most countries in the world, we stand by Ukraine.
Europe has shown unprecedented solidarity with Ukraine.
We are mobilizing the power of our economy to force Putin to pay a huge price, in particular by imposing tough sanctions that are hitting the Russian economy.
We are sending weapons to Ukraine. We are strengthening our economic support for Ukraine.
And, of course, we welcome four million refugees from Ukraine seeking refuge in the EU. We provide them with a secure status so that they can stay as long as they need to have access to education and employment opportunities until they can return home safely.
Let me ask you about this really interesting initiative of the European Commission, the Government of Canada and the human rights organization Global Citizen to raise funding for Ukraine during the war. Who do you expect to be the donors and contributors to such a fund, and why are you working together with Canada and its political leadership?
Indeed, with Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau and with the support of Global Citizen, we have launched a fundraising campaign for Ukraine. The people of Ukraine have stood up to defend their freedom, so we must stand up for them. I was very happy to have governments, artists, businesses and people from all over the world join. We have raised EUR 9.1 billion for Ukrainians fleeing the war, both inside and around Ukraine. Of this, about EUR 1.8 billion will be used to cover the needs of internally displaced persons in Ukraine. The rest will be used to provide refugees in the EU with what they need now – food, shelter, medical care, as well as access to school education and employment.
On behalf of the European Commission, we have allocated EUR 1 billion – EUR 600 million for Ukraine, along with an additional EUR 400 million to help neighboring countries meet the needs of refugees. After all, I promised President Zelensky in Kyiv that we would take care of Ukrainians fleeing the war.
This week you announced the fifth package of sanctions against Russia. It's quite complex, it affects Russia's banking, technology, trade, transport, infrastructure. Was such a reaction intensified in response to the atrocities against the residents of Bucha outside Kyiv, and was it difficult to reach a consensus among member states?
After the atrocities in Bucha, we've decided to step up pressure on Putin and the Russian government.
Indeed, the European Union has already imposed five waves of comprehensive sanctions. Unprecedented sanctions, both in terms of volume and speed with which they were adopted. Over 40 countries have now taken similar action in response to Russia's atrocities.
We are already preparing the sixth wave of sanctions. And these sanctions will hit hard. They will cut Russia off from the world, severely weaken its military and technological industrial base, and exhaust the income of Putin and his allies. We are determined to cripple the Kremlin's military machine.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Joseph Borrell has recently announced that Brussels will contribute to efforts to build the EU's defense and security. What can this political program include? Will it include a component of assistance to Eastern European countries that share a border with Russia, and in particular to Ukraine, among this league of countries?
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has changed Europe's geopolitical landscape. It gave a clear understanding that the EU must be better prepared and able to act firmly and decisively in response to crises, both within and outside the neighboring region.
A clear example of this shift is that, for the first time in its history, the EU is funding the supply of lethal weapons. We have already financed military equipment for Ukraine from the EU budget for EUR 1 billion, but more is needed, and now we have offered an additional EUR 500 million. NATO will remain the cornerstone of our common defense policy. But we must and can do more together, in the EU, to invest in our defense capabilities and military technology. This is what we are going to focus on in the coming months.
Ukraine is negotiating with the European Commission to join the European Union as a member state. This would be a huge guarantee of security and economic opportunity for Ukraine and Ukrainian society. Can you tell us more about these talks? Negotiations on EU accession are usually fraught with technical intricacies and complexities, such as trade protocols and customs procedures, but if I start asking all these details, it will be an endless conversation. So let me ask: does the heroism of the Ukrainian army matter for the country to be accepted into the family of European states? Ukraine does have an impressive sociology of supporting accession to the European Union, and such a step is enshrined in the country's Constitution. On the other hand, if it were not for Russia's aggression, Ukraine would not have the right to become a member or even a candidate for membership. Why do you think this is still important to give Ukraine a chance to become the 28th member of the Brussels trade and political block?
The Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area between Ukraine and the EU have already brought us closer in political, economic ties and common values. The courageous struggle of the people of Ukraine for the values that, in fact, underpin the European Union, demonstrates a strong commitment to becoming part of the European family.
The prospect of membership has already been launched. EU leaders invited the Commission to prepare a conclusion on Ukraine's application. We immediately started working on this, and on Friday, April 8, I handed over a questionnaire to President Zelensky in Kyiv, which will be the basis for our talks in the coming months. My goal is to present our conclusion by the summer.
Thus, Ukraine has settled down to the European course.
Another question about the future of relations between Ukraine and the EU. As Great Britain's political history shows, a country may not experience all the benefits of EU membership without joining the eurozone. But for this step, the country's economy and public finances must be well prepared. Does Ukraine have a chance to join the eurozone in the near future?
It's too early to talk about the introduction of the European currency in Ukraine. But we can do much more to strengthen our economic ties and integrate our economies. We had already worked on this with Ukraine long before the invasion.
I would like to mention a very illustrative example of the rapprochement between the EU and Ukraine, even in these difficult times. We've managed to unite Ukraine's electricity grid with the European one, and we did it in a few weeks, while it usually takes years. This is important for Ukraine's energy security. And it helps to keep the electricity and heating in the houses in these dark times.
In 2013, you became Germany's first female federal defense minister. This is a great career achievement and an important step toward equal opportunities for all that Europe must have and support. What will be your appeal to Ukrainian women who serve in the army, volunteer and take care of their children and their families during the war with Russia?
I often think of the courage of these women who had to leave everything for one night to escape the bombings and shelling. Sometimes they walked for hours in the dark, in the cold, to take the children to safety. They said goodbye to their husbands and families, not knowing if they would see them again.
I also think of women who stayed to fight with their parents, brothers or husbands.
I think of you all. And my message to each of you is the following: your determination and love, your endurance and courage are the most powerful shield against the aggressor. You are not alone. We are on your side, because we share the deep and urgent desire that our children should live in freedom and peace. That's why we stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine.
It is important to maintain some optimism for Ukrainians in these terrible times when Russia is attacking Ukrainian cities, towns and villages. This is difficult because people here in Kyiv, here in Ukraine, are emotionally devastated. It is extremely difficult for the Ukrainian authorities to even provide financial compensation to the victims of the Russian war. Does the EU plan to provide Ukraine with new programs of economic support and macro-financial assistance to strengthen the country?
The EU provides significant financial support to Ukraine. Since 2014, we have invested EUR 17 billion in the country to help modernize the economy and support strong institutions. After the invasion, of course, we're stepping up this support by providing a EUR 1.2 billion emergency macro-financial assistance package. We have already paid half, and the rest is expedited and is coming now. We are now providing humanitarian support to refugees and internally displaced persons. I realize that the devastation caused by this war is depleting resources much faster. That's why there is even more to come. As soon as the war is over, we will support you in rebuilding the country. We stand by your side.