EU leaders meet at Versailles to discuss Russia’s war in Ukraine, economic fallout

The gathering comes roughly two weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the full-scale assault, beginning what has become a brutal, multi-front attack on Ukrainian cities and civilians. The first high-level talks between Ukraine and Russia since the invasion failed to produce an agreement Thursday, with Ukraine’s foreign minister saying his country would not “surrender” and his Russian counterpart warning the West against sending more weapons to Ukraine.

The conflict has upended Europe’s security architecture but largely united the bloc – at least for now. But as the war continues, the EU will face tough questions about how far it is willing to go.

Moved by the urgent appeals of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, EU countries came together quickly to hit Putin with “unprecedented” sanctions. For the first time, the bloc agreed to supply and finance arms for Ukraine. It also decided to offer “temporary protection” to Ukrainians fleeing the fighting – another first.

“Putin believed that he was going to conquer Ukraine, he failed,” the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said Thursday.

“He believed he was going to divide us, he failed. He believed he was going to weaken the transatlantic relationship and he failed, ”Borrell continued. “Now he needs to end the war.”

But the details are still being worked out. The EU has played up its renewed commitment to defense, for instance, but Borrell’s pledge to send fighter jets to Ukraine fell through with little explanation.

EU leaders have vowed to stand with Ukrainians, including those fleeing the conflict. Ukrainian nationals will be offered “temporary protection” for up to three years, will be able to live and work in any of the 27 EU nations, and will be eligible for school and social benefits. They will also bypass the asylum system that has left so many from Africa and the Middle East in years-long limbo.

Though Europe seems relatively united in its desire to help, EU countries must still figure out how to accommodate the roughly 2 million people who have fled Ukraine in two weeks, as well as millions of others who may follow.

A major focus now is the economic impact of sanctions and other measures. An EU proposal to drastically cut – though not ban – Russian gas imports is expected to leave countries scrambling to secure scarce supply and squabbling over burden-sharing.

Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins said Thursday that the EU should stop all energy imports from Russia to get Putin to the negotiating table. “We need the sanctions to stop the war,” he said.

The view is at odds with EU nations that oppose such measures. In a statement issued before the summit, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said a ban was out of the question. “We continue to need gas and oil coming from Russia,” the statement said.

An elephant in the room throughout was Zelensky’s urgent plea to join the union. In a recent speech to the European Parliament, the Ukrainian leader all but begged the bloc to let his country in. “Now we are fighting for survival,” he said in a virtual address. “But we are fighting also to be equal members of Europe.”

European lawmakers and officials greeted the speech with a standing ovation and kind words. But in the days since, it’s become clear that the EU nations are divided on what to do about Ukraine’s request and seem to be seeking a way to say “no,” or at least, “not yet,” without saying so directly.

On Thursday, Clément Beaune, France’s EU affairs minister, suggested on French public radio that negotiations on EU enlargement should not be the focus right now. “What is saving lives today is military and humanitarian aid,” he said.

A senior EU diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to brief journalists, was even more direct. “As soon as things calm down,” he said, “we are going to put our money where our mouth is.”

A statement issued Thursday said the European Council “acknowledged the European aspirations and the European choice of Ukraine.”

It said the council has asked the European Commission to submit its opinion on the application. “Pending this and without delay, we will further strengthen our bonds and deepen our partnership to support Ukraine in pursuing its European path. Ukraine belongs to our European family. ”

Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.

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