Ukraine’s Zelenskyy seeks fast-track EU membership

Sanctions on Russia grow as Switzerland adopts bloc’s financial measures

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Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for fast-track membership of the European Union for his embattled country as it fights a Russian invasion.

But senior EU figures showed little enthusiasm for speeding up a process that typically takes many years and requires countries to meet the bloc’s exacting standards on issues such as corruption, pollution and the rule of law.

It came on the fifth day of a war in Ukraine which the UN said had already killed at least 102 civilians and prompted half a million people to flee their homes. Ceasefire talks began at the border with Belarus but fighting continued elsewhere, with Ukraine still in control of major cities.

Pressure from a defiant Mr Zelenskyy in Kiev has already helped to push European leaders to open their weapons stores and impose sanctions that caused havoc in the Russian economy on Monday.

Even Switzerland, known for its non-alignment and opaque banking system, announced on Monday that it would adopt the EU’s sanctions on Russia in full, including asset freezes on President Vladimir Putin and figures in his inner circle.

Top Swiss officials decided that preserving the integrity of the country's famed financial sector was more important than the small amount of Russian business they said was conducted in Switzerland.

“Playing into the hands of an aggressor is not neutral,” Swiss President Ignazio Cassis said as he explained the rare move, which was welcomed by senior ministers in the EU.

French President Emmanuel Macron tried to keep diplomatic efforts alive by speaking to both Mr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine. EU energy ministers meeting on Monday were meanwhile urged to support an emergency link between Ukraine’s power grid and that of its neighbours to the west.

But demanding to be on an equal footing with EU countries, Mr Zelenskyy called on Monday for the “immediate accession of Ukraine via a new special procedure”. He said he had signed an official request to join the bloc.

“I am sure we deserve this,” he said from the presidential palace in Kiev. “I am sure that all this is possible.”

Long road to membership

EU membership applications require long negotiations on more than 30 policy areas, and Ukraine does not yet have the status of a candidate country. The last new member, Croatia, applied in 2003 and joined in 2013.

Any accession requires the unanimous approval of all 27 existing EU members as well as backing from the European Commission and the European Parliament.

Poland has openly backed an “express path” for Ukraine, but although EU leaders in Brussels have spoken of deepening ties with Kiev, they have shown no sign they are willing to tear up the rulebook for membership.

“Today it is not on the agenda, believe me,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in Brussels on Monday. “We have to provide an answer for the coming hours, not for the coming years.”

Ireland and Germany said accession was not something that could happen in a couple of months, while Eric Mamer, a spokesman for the European Commission, said Ukraine was a country with a “European perspective” but that the process for membership still stood.

Also unwilling to send troops to Ukraine, European countries have instead sought to show support by exporting weapons, providing financial aid and rallying the West to agree sweeping sanctions on Russia.

Military gear being exported to Ukraine includes protective equipment from Sweden and Finland as well as howitzers from the former East Germany, now in Estonia’s possession, which Berlin has granted its approval to export.

It was part of a historic shift in German defence policy that took many observers by surprise and will see 100 billion euros ($112bn) spent on upgrading the military and tough sanctions imposed on Russia after years of equivocation towards the Kremlin.

Tens of thousands demonstrate in Cologne, Germany, during a peace march against the war in Ukraine. AP

Sanctions kick in

Europe’s financial markets began severing Russia from their systems on Monday, while the rouble took a battering on currency exchanges. Russia’s central bank, which had some of its own assets frozen, raised its interest rate to 20 per cent in response.

Mr Borrell said sanctions would come with a cost to Europe and were "not a free lunch" as energy ministers discussed how to reduce Europe's reliance on Russian gas imports.

Robert Habeck, Germany's Economy Minister, acknowledged the country had been too dependent on Russian gas in the past and had a "duty to free ourselves" from that reliance.

A spokesman for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said companies with interests in Russia should think carefully about whether to continue doing business there, after energy giant BP announced it was ending a shareholding in Russian oil company Rosneft.

France said it was preparing what it called a census of luxury assets, including property, yachts and vehicles, belonging to Russian oligarchs who could face sanctions owing to links with the Kremlin.

Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the economic reality had changed but that Russia could withstand western sanctions.

Many countries have closed their airspace to Russian planes, effectively blocking them from Europe. Russia retaliated with a ban on planes from 36 countries, including Britain, Germany, Spain, Italy and Canada, using its airspace.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, one of those sanctioned by the EU, had to cancel a trip to the United Nations in Geneva, in landlocked Switzerland, after the flight bans took effect.

Switzerland imposed its own sanctions on Russia after the European Commission called on the Alpine country to “live up to the moment that we are all living through”. Five Russian oligarchs with business interests in Switzerland will be banned from entering the country.

Swiss finance chief Ueli Maurer said Russian money accounted for only one per cent of direct investment in Switzerland and that there was no formal business between the two central banks.

Mr Cassis said the aim of the sanctions was to prompt a rethink from Russia on its intervention in Ukraine. Switzerland has said it is willing to mediate in the dispute.

Updated: February 28, 2022, 5:17 PM