EU's big three leaders vow to back Ukraine during landmark Kyiv visit

Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz and Mario Draghi make joint trip to the Ukraine capital after weeks of planning

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The leaders of France, Germany and Italy have given their backing to Ukraine's long-held desire to join the European Union after meeting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday during a visit to Kyiv.

“Ukraine belongs to the European family,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in the first visit by Europe's most prominent leaders to the Ukrainian capital since Russia unleashed its invasion. Kyiv hopes the high-profile message of support will lead to more weapons supplies and tougher sanctions on Russia.

Mr Scholz travelled by night train with French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi for the landmark trip, arriving to the sound of air raid sirens.

The trio, joined by Romania's Klaus Iohannis, then visited the devastated ruins of the town of Irpin before meeting Mr Zelenskyy.

Noting graffiti on a wall that read “Make Europe, not war”, Mr Macron said: “It's very moving to see that. This is the right message.”

The European Commission is expected to make a recommendation on Ukraine's status as an EU candidate on Friday, something the biggest European nations had long resisted.

Mr Macron said all four leaders supported the idea of granting “immediate” EU candidate status to Ukraine, adding that France would step up arms deliveries to Kyiv.

Mr Macron said it was time for Europe to reassure Ukraine over its EU ambitions. “We are at a point when we need to send clear political signals, us Europeans, towards Ukraine and its people when it is resisting heroically,” he said.

Speaking at a joint news conference in the Ukrainian capital, Mr Draghi said he fully supported investigations into alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

“I want to say today that the most important message of my visit is that Italy wants Ukraine in the European Union. And it wants Ukraine to have candidate status and will support this position at the next European Council,” he said.

“We are at a turning point in our history. The Ukrainian people defend every day the values of democracy and freedom that underpin the European project, our project. We cannot wait. We cannot delay this process.”

He said that Italy wanted atrocities to stop in Ukraine and called for peace, but that “any diplomatic solution cannot be separated from the will of Kyiv”.

In the face of Kyiv’s fears that western resolve to help it could wane, the visit carried heavy symbolic weight. The three European powers have faced criticism for continuing to engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin — and failing to provide Ukraine with the scale of weaponry that it has said is necessary to fend off the Russians.

Mr Macron said the West would not demand any concessions from Ukraine and that the circumstances of peace talks would be on Kyiv's terms.

While visiting the devastated ruins of Irpin, Mr Macron said: “You have all seen these images in this devastated city which is at the same time a heroic city since it is here, among other places that Ukrainian men and women stopped the Russian army from descending on Kyiv.

Left to right: Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, French President Emmanuel Macron and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis meet for a working session in Mariinsky Palace, in Kyiv. EPA

“So it represents the heroism of the army but also of the Ukrainian population and alongside that, you also have the traces, the stigmata of barbarism.”

Mr Zelenskyy, who has not left Ukraine since the invasion, has voiced gratitude for the West's help, though his administration has also previously berated allies for dragging their feet on sanctions and arms supplies.

“We appreciate the support already provided by partners, we expect new deliveries, primarily heavy weapons, modern rocket artillery, anti-missile defence systems,” Mr Zelenskyy said.

“Every day of delay or delayed decisions is an opportunity for the Russian military to kill Ukrainians or destroy our cities,” he said. “There is a direct correlation: the more powerful weapons we get, the faster we can liberate our people, our land.”

Footage from the night train to Kyiv showed the three sitting at the same table on a trip that has taken weeks to organise. The leaders hoped to overcome criticism within Ukraine over their response to the war with Russia. Romania's Mr Iohannis arrived separately.

Mr Draghi pledged that Irpin and places like it would be rebuilt. “Everything, we will rebuild everything,” he said. “They destroyed the nurseries, the playgrounds and everything will be rebuilt. They’ve already started. They have a digital system so that every place that was destroyed will be put back. They know exactly where the sites are that need to be rebuilt. Every family has an app where they can describe what happened. And they are already well along on this project, they told us.”

Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi, France's President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz chat on a night train traveling to Kyiv. Getty Images

Before the visit, Kyiv criticised France, Germany and, to a lesser extent, Italy, for allegedly dragging their heels in terms of support for Ukraine, accusing them of being slow to deliver weapons and of putting their own prosperity ahead of Ukraine's freedom and security.

Mr Draghi said on Tuesday it was important for peace talks to start as soon as possible, but that they had to be “on terms that Ukraine deems acceptable”.

President Zelenskyy pushed his visitors to send more arms to help the hard-pressed army withstand the Russian invaders.

Ukraine has been particularly critical of Germany's military aid and the country's ambassador to Berlin, Andrij Melnyk, told German broadcaster NTV he expected Mr Scholz to hand over heavy weapons that have long been promised but not yet delivered.

Mr Scholz dismissed allegations that Germany has held back military support, saying it was one of the biggest military and financial backers of Ukraine, and that it was taking time to train Ukrainian soldiers to use the sophisticated artillery systems that it was offering.

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Updated: June 16, 2022, 8:00 PM