Against the backdrop of Europe’s natural gas crisis and ongoing energy security fears, EU leaders pledged more support to Ukraine during a joint summit with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Tuesday (12 October).
The summit, according to EU officials, was seen as an opportunity for Europeans to “reaffirm their commitment to strengthen Ukraine’s political association and economic integration with the EU”.
It also came at a time when Kyiv is lobbying its Western allies over what it claims is Moscow’s attempt to use gas supplies as a weapon against Europe.
Speaking in Kyiv alongside Zelenskiy, EU leaders said Brussels is looking into ensuring Ukraine has a steady supply of natural gas this winter and is not exposed to any reduction in Russian output.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said reverse flows could come from Slovakia, which since September 2014 has had an interconnector with Ukraine.
“The Commission, together with Ukrainian experts, is exploring, right now, different scenarios to secure sufficient supply for Ukraine,” von der Leyen said in Kyiv.
“We will also work closely with you … to increase gas supply capacity coming from member states of the EU. And this also includes the option of working on arrangements to reverse the flow of an additional gas pipeline from Slovakia,” she said.
Reverse gas supplies are no longer possible from Hungary, since the latter signed recently a bilateral long-term gas supply contract with Gazprom.
Von der Leyen was clear that “Ukraine remains, and must remain, a reliable transit country” for gas supplies to Europe.
Her comments came from Eastern European concerns over the recent completion of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany. Ukraine, and some of its Eastern European EU neighbours, have said they will fight against it.
Energy concerns also sparked a bilateral row between Ukraine and Hungary last month. Budapest signed a new long-term energy deal with Russia that sidelined Ukraine as a transit country.
Ukraine also fears its supplies from Russia could be disrupted given continuing hostilities between the two countries or used as political leverage in the region.
After the joint EU-Ukraine meeting, Zelenskiy said he hopes that the EU would show “courage and long-sightedness” to give Ukraine a clear signal that it’s an “inalienable part of the European space.”
Asked about prospects of Ukraine’s eventual EU membership, von der Leyen told reporters that “we are one European family, and we work together.”
For its part, Brussels has repeatedly called on Kyiv to commit greater efforts to combat graft and reforming Ukraine’s notoriously corrupt judicial system.
Both sides also signed the Common Civil Aviation Area Agreement, under which Ukraine will pursue the mandatory implementation of European standards and rules in air transportation.
Widely known as the Open Skies Treaty, it is expected to open the country up to more low-cost air routes and boost tourism.
Two other agreements, one on Ukraine’s access to the Horizon Europe and the other on Creative Europe programs regarding cooperation in the arts, research and academic spheres, were also part of the summit package.
Ahead of the joint summit, EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said EU leaders would reiterate the bloc’s “full support” for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as to “underline our continued and effective support to the ongoing reform progress.”
“The EU reiterated its unwavering support and commitment to Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders,” a joint EU-Ukraine declaration read after the summit, while EU leaders in Kyiv called on Russia to push for a resolution of the conflict.
Earlier in August, an international summit initiated by Ukraine reaffirmed commitments to de-occupy Crimea seven and a half years after Russian troops occupied the strategic Black Sea peninsula.
Von der Leyen said that in the aftermath of the Crimea Platform summit, the EU side had sent its personnel to eastern Ukraine to assess the situation.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, whose countries are the two leading European parts of the Normandy Format, had phone calls on Monday with their Ukrainian and Russian counterparts to discuss the security situation in the country’s East.
The Normandy Four group was established in June 2014 when the leaders of Russia, France, Germany, and Ukraine discussed ways to resolve the Donbas conflict for the first time.
“The interlocutors agreed to ask their foreign ministers to meet soon to achieve this,” the German government statement said after leaders had spoken about the implementation of the Minsk Agreements aimed at bringing about a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Since then, five summits have been held, with the last one taking place in Paris in late 2019.
Ukraine has battled Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region in a conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people since 2014.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]