EU leaders are gathering in Brussels on June 23 to vote on Ukraine’s EU membership candidacy in a vote that is widely expected to go through, as Russia intensifies its attacks in Donbas.
The vote comes after leaders of Germany, France, Romania and Italy announced their wholehearted support for Ukraine to “join the European family” last week during a visit to Kyiv on June 16, but added some qualifications.
France and Germany have been amongst the most reluctant of the EU’s 27 members to endorse Ukraine’s membership. French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that a second-class membership category be created for Ukraine that acknowledges its European aspirations, but stops short of admitting it to the club and granting it the freedoms of movement of labour, capital and goods as well as access to the billions of euros in funds that comes with membership.
Kyiv strongly rejected that proposal and insisted that “nothing short of full membership” would do. The Kyiv visit was important as France put aside these reservations in the face of Russian aggression, and Macron endorsed a “yes” vote for Ukraine’s membership being held today.
Likewise, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz threw his support behind the bid and reportedly has been actively lobbying the other EU members in the last week to vote for Ukraine’s membership. Going into the vote reportedly all 27 members have agreed to the idea.
An EU leaders' summit is due to be held before the general meeting of the European Commission, where the vote on Ukraine will be held, to discuss placating the other candidate members that have been by-passed in the rush to bring Ukraine into the accession process. Western Balkan countries' progress has been “agonisingly” slow and the EU has been deliberately dragging its heels on admitting them.
Ukraine is being allowed to skip several steps in the run-up to being formally brought into the accession process. Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania were threatening to boycott the meeting out of pique, but have decided to attend in the end.
Bulgaria also remains a sticking point, and it is still not clear that it will vote in favour of a motion to admit Ukraine to candidate status. Other countries like Poland and the Baltic States are fully backing Ukraine’s membership as soon as possible.
However, even if Ukraine is accepted, the process of joining the EU is long and arduous. Other accession members took over a decade to complete the process and candidates like Turkey have been waiting for more than two decades and may never be admitted.
Bankova has also been working flat out ahead of the vote to shore up its support amongst the country's many friends in the EU. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he had been conducting a "telephone marathon" on his country's behalf in the run-up to the meeting, making his country's case to 11 European leaders on June 22 alone, reports the Moscow Times.
"We are preparing for the historic decision of the European Council. There are only a few hours remaining before it," he said in his daily address.
Fighting to intensify
Zelenskiy warned that as the bigwigs met in Brussels, Russia was likely to signal its displeasure by intensifying the fighting in Donbas.
At the same time, observers have been alarmed by reports of a build-up of Belarusian and Russian troops in Belarus on the border with Ukraine that is threatening to relaunch a northern assault.
Meanwhile, the fighting in Donbas grinds on, with Russia continuing to make incremental advances. Moscow's troops have been pummelling the Luhansk region and the strategically important city of Severodonetsk for weeks and are slowly advancing, despite fierce resistance.
Russia has still not taken complete control of the key city of Severodonetsk, but Ukraine’s defenders are reportedly holed up in the Azot chemical works, in what looks like a repeat of the siege of the Azovstal metal works in Mariupol, where Ukrainian defenders held out against a Russian onslaught for two months.
In recent days Russian troops have made more advances and have also encircled another salient to the south of Severodonetsk centred on the Zolote village which is now in danger of encirclement, which also threatens to cut off Severodonetsk further.
A senior US official in Washington said President Joe Biden and other Group of Seven leaders holding a summit this weekend in Germany would announce new measures to punish Russia for the invasion.
"We will roll out a concrete set of proposals to increase pressure on Russia," the official said, adding that Zelenskiy would address the summit.
Reuters reported this week that a seventh package of sanctions is already being prepared and that secondary sanctions on trading in Russian gold were on the list of measures.
Although the West has seized some $300bn of Central Bank of Russia (CBR) reserves – half its pre-war total – the Kremlin still controls about $136bn in physical gold reserves, almost all of which are in Russia. The Kremlin can use this gold in various deals to create liquidity and get access to currencies like China’s yuan or India’s rupee that will allow it to do international trade deals. The US is hoping to shut this loophole down by making it illegal to do gold-based deals with Russia or business with anyone that has done a gold deal with Russia.