President Volodymyr Zelensky, flanked by his prime minister to the right and the speaker of the parliament to the left, signed the application for EU membership © Ukraine Presidency/AFP/Getty

Good morning and welcome to Europe Express.

In just one week, Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has brought about so many policy shifts in Europe that it’s hard to keep track. Kyiv’s application to join the EU was met with encouraging signals from multiple capitals. Still, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call for a fast-track membership may be the one Rubicon the bloc is unlikely to cross any time soon — and we’ll run you through the reasons why.

Other milestones were passed yesterday when Switzerland joined the EU in adopting far-reaching sanctions against the Kremlin and Turkey’s president made his strongest show of support for Ukraine yet.

The situation in Ukraine remains dire, with an onslaught on the eastern city of Kharkiv causing many civilian casualties. Over 500,000 Ukrainians have fled to safety in neighbouring countries. A first round of talks yesterday between Ukrainian and Russian envoys, as well as another Paris-Moscow call have not led to any breakthroughs.

In slightly more uplifting news, energy ministers gathered in Brussels yesterday pledged to link up Ukraine’s electricity grid to the EU’s within weeks.

And with elections looming in Hungary, we look at how statements from Budapest on the delivery of weapons to Ukraine have inflamed the opposition.

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Pedal to the metal

Volodymyr Zelensky has proved to have exceptional powers of persuasion when dealing with EU leaders in recent days, write Sam Fleming and Valentina Pop in Brussels.

The looming decision by the EU and G7 partners to eject a number of Russian banks from the Swift messaging network owes much to his public demands for tougher action against Vladimir Putin’s regime, for example. (Last night the EU and US were still tussling over the exact banks that will be affected.)

Another example is Zelensky’s increasingly prominent campaign for Ukraine to become an EU member. Yesterday, flanked by the prime minister and speaker of the parliament, the president submitted an application to the EU. The proposal has been widely welcomed in the EU, where governments are anxious to offer Ukraine all the support and encouragement they can muster as its weathers Russia’s brutal invasion.

Now that the application has been submitted, it will need to be assessed “very rapidly” by the council, with a decision on whether to request an urgent opinion from the European Commission, said one EU official. It will then fall to the commission to assess Ukraine as a possible candidate — a process that can take upwards of 18 months but which can be accelerated.

The governments of the Baltic states, as well as a number of other countries including Greece, signalled support for the move and so did Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, who told Euronews that “we want them in the European Union”.

The European Parliament, in a resolution expected to be adopted today, also supports Ukraine’s bid for “candidate status”, while seeking further integration for the country into the single market along the lines of the EU’s existing association agreement with Ukraine.

The Latvian defence minister, Artis Pabriks, in an op-ed published in the Financial Times, is also urging action on fellow EU members. “Ukraine needs more than weapons and hope. It needs membership of the EU and Nato. It would be a disgrace if we did not meet the request for EU accession made by President Volodymyr Zelensky,” he said.

The reality is, however, that joining the EU remains a far-off prospect. Officials in Brussels warn that such a process — if ever started — would take years. And if Ukraine’s application were to be fast-tracked, the risk is that countries in the western Balkans that have been waiting for decades would feel sidelined.

While the messages of support are warranted, “some people are getting carried away” and signalling things that the EU will be unable to deliver in a rapid manner, said one EU official familiar with enlargement discussions.

Being granted EU candidate status is something that Ukraine has sought before, culminating with the 2013 Euromaidan protests (which were about the government reneging on an association agreement with the bloc). The pro-Russian president was ousted, after which Russia launched its attacks in 2014.

Back then, several member states, notably the Netherlands and Germany, were adamant that membership was off the table. Any membership decision has to be taken unanimously by the 27 member states after a years-long process of adopting the so-called EU acquis communautaire, the body of common law, and changing state structures, including the judiciary, to match EU standards.

For its part, the commission dismissed any idea that von der Leyen’s “one of us” remark meant that Ukraine can avoid going through the hoops that countries wanting to join the EU face. “There is a process when it comes to accession negotiations,” said chief spokesperson Eric Mamer.

Chart du jour: Free fall

Line chart of Exchange rate against US dollar  showing Rouble tumbles to record low

Russia’s central bank more than doubled interest rates yesterday in an attempt to steady the country’s financial markets, after unprecedented western sanctions sent the rouble tumbling as much as 29 per cent. Some investors said they saw a possibility that Russia could default on its debt, which has become extremely hard to trade. (More here)

Power link-up

The EU intends to connect Ukraine’s electricity grid to its own within weeks to ensure security of supply in the embattled country, despite the risk of causing blackouts elsewhere in Europe, write Andy Bounds in Brussels and Eleni Varvitsioti in Athens.

Once the networks are synchronised, a shortage of power in Ukraine, through the loss of a power station for example, would have knock-on effects in neighbouring states. But officials yesterday seemed willing to take on that risk.

“We have to help Ukraine. We have to take the risk,” said Barbara Pompili, the French minister for ecological transition who chaired an emergency council of EU energy ministers yesterday. “We have to weigh up the risks but also the need to connect Ukraine because they are at risk of blackout.”

The technical work could take several weeks, said Kadri Simson, the EU energy commissioner.

Moldova would also be connected, she added.

Ukraine decoupled its grid from Russia’s on February 24 and, as an isolated system, it is vulnerable to outages.

A €53.4mn agreement to plug it into the EU grid was signed in 2017 and the move was originally expected next year.

Simson said that gas — which typically flows from Russia via Ukraine to the EU — is also now going the other way. EU countries have also provided diesel, jet fuel, petrol and crude oil as requested by Kyiv.

Ministers discussed ways to reduce reliance on Russia, which supplies around 40 per cent of EU gas demand. So far it is fulfilling its contracts despite sanctions after the Ukraine invasion.

The bloc “can get through this winter safely”, said Simson, thanks to record imports of liquefied natural gas.

Even if Russia cuts off the gas the EU could probably cope next winter too, Bruegel, the Brussels-based think-tank, found.

It would require a 10-15 per cent cut in gas use, as long as imports from north Africa, Norway and Azerbaijan remain at current high levels and there were record LNG imports. The weather is the biggest variable, with demand changing by up to 30 per cent depending on how cold it is.

Ministers also demanded the commission come up with more radical proposals to cut high prices for domestic consumers, after a 170 per cent rise in gas costs in 2021. Its suggestions last October were insufficient, they said.

However, their own ideas have not gained traction. Spain continues to lobby for the suspension of a pricing system that links the cost of electricity to that of gas, however it is generated, but remains in a minority.

Greece, backed by Romania and Bulgaria, tabled a plan to use low interest, long-term loans to fund subsidies for consumers, to little enthusiasm.

Hungarian stand

Hungary has said it will not allow the transfer of weapons to Ukraine from its territory, a decision which does not affect actual deliveries but is significant in the view of forthcoming elections next month, writes Marton Dunai in Budapest.

The Hungarian foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, together with all his EU counterparts on Sunday agreed to use EU funds for the first time ever to deliver weapons to Ukraine. But yesterday, he took to Facebook to make the following statement:

“Today, we have made another decision not to allow the transfer of lethal weapons in Hungary as these shipments could easily be targeted by military attacks,” Szijjártó wrote. “Hungarians do not want this war. We want peace in the neighbourhood and in the region.”

The shipments can still go ahead via Poland, which on Sunday offered to be a logistics hub for the operation.

Hungary has consistently taken a contradictory line on Russia, given prime minister Viktor Orban’s cordial ties with Putin and rather frosty links with Ukraine. On the one hand, he has denounced the war and backed the EU’s sanctions regime against Russia. On the other, he has so far refused to deliver weapons to Ukraine and said he did not need extra Nato troops to be deployed on Hungarian territory.

With elections coming up next month and polls suggesting a tight race, Orban in a televised interview on Sunday sought to shake off criticism from the opposition, calling him out on cozying up to Putin. The opposition has said it would send weapons to Ukraine, to which Orban replied that such a step would be hasty, risky and unnecessary.

He added that he would fight against sanctions in the field of energy:

“The issue of Paks 2 [Hungary’s finance-and-build agreement with Russia for a nuclear power plant] and energy must be left out of sanctions, or else we will pay the price for them.”

What to watch today

  1. G7 finance ministers discuss implementation of sanctions against Russia, including the suspension of some Russian banks from Swift

  2. European Parliament holds an emergency session to show support for Ukraine

Notable, Quotable

  • Nato enlargement: A majority of Finns are in favour of joining Nato for the first time in the Nordic country’s history — another sign that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is pushing the once neutral state and its neighbour Sweden towards the military alliance.

  • Oligarch ban: The EU has frozen the assets and imposed a travel ban on some of Russia’s most prominent oligarchs, as well as senior figures in the government, in the latest widening of its sanctions regime. Member states are now working on further sanctions, including the planned disconnection of a number of banks from the Swift messaging network, and Belarus-related penalties.

  • Armaments boom: Shares of Germany’s listed defence contractors soared yesterday after chancellor Olaf Scholz declared the country would pour more than €100bn into modernising its depleted armed forces.

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