Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged the European Parliament to support his country's membership in the European Union in an emotional appeal via video link on Tuesday. However, although some Eastern European countries expressed support for his request, the European Commission replied that Ukraine is still far from joining the bloc of 27 member states.
"We have proven our strengths. We have proven that, at a minimum, we are exactly the same as you are," Zelensky told his audience of EU lawmakers, many of whom wore blue-and-yellow ribbons in the colours of Ukraine's flag and held signs reading "We Stand With Ukraine."
"Prove that you are with us. Do prove that you will not let us go. Do prove that you indeed are Europeans," Zelensky told the special sitting convened to debate Russia's invasion of his country.
At the end of his speech, which lasted just under 10 minutes, Zelensky received a standing ovation.
Lawmakers later passed a motion urging the EU institutions to expedite Ukraine's candidate status as well as condemning Russia's attack with 637 votes in favour, 13 against and 26 abstentions.
Kiev's push for EU membership comes as fierce fighting continued on the sixth day of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, with concerns growing about the number of civilian casualties.
Zelensky condemned Russia's attacks on civilians in Ukraine and told the EU legislators he was speaking to them between a pause in rocket attacks.
He said a missile that struck Freedom Square in central Kharkiv resulted in dozens of fatalities. "Can you imagine this morning two cruise missiles hit this Freedom Square ... this is the price of freedom," he said.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry published a video on Twitter on Tuesday showing the attack in the north-eastern city. Cars can be seen driving outside the administrative building before it is hit by a powerful explosion.
Russia is waging war in violation of international humanitarian law. Kills civilians, destroys civilian infrastructure. Russiaʼs main target is large cities that now fired at by its missiles.— MFA of Ukraine 🇺🇦 (@MFA_Ukraine) March 1, 2022
📍Kharkiv, Administration building pic.twitter.com/BJgyNnDp1h
Russia says it is not targeting civilians.
The situation in Ukraine is fast-moving and individual military accounts can be difficult to confirm.
Support from Eastern member states
Ukraine's application has support from several eastern member states. On Monday, the presidents of the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia signed an open letter calling for EU candidate status for the country.
Hungary's Foreign Minister Peter Szijjaro voiced support for Ukraine's membership in a Facebook video while Romanian President Klaus Iohannis also backed Kiev's appeal on Tuesday.
"Romania fully supports the integration of Ukraine, as well as of the Republic of Moldova and Georgia, with the European Union. The place of these partners of the EU is within the European family, and Romania will do its best for this to become reality," he wrote on Twitter.
Candidate status can provide tangible benefits for membership hopefuls, making the country more attractive for investment, easing trade flows and providing greater stability, according to the bloc.
However, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned that "a long path" lies ahead before Ukraine can join the 27-nation EU.
The war in Ukraine must end and further steps must be discussed, von der Leyen told EU legislators. Ukraine however "belongs in our European family," she added.
The EU has to "seriously look" at giving Ukraine candidacy status as part of its push to join the bloc, European Council President Charles Michel said.
Kiev's request for EU membership was "symbolic, political and legitimate," Michel told EU lawmakers.
However, the decision on Ukraine's potential membership must be taken unanimously by all EU member states, and not the bloc's executive arm.
Michel recognized Zelensky's emotional appeal but said the decision has to be taken based on "appropiate choices."
In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock cautioned against a hasty accession of Ukraine to the EU after a meeting with her Slovenian counterpart Anže Logar.
"EU accession is not something that can be achieved in a few months," Baerbock said, but emphasized that Ukraine is "part of the house of Europe."
Alignment with EU rules and values
The EU's formal membership candidates are Albania, North Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Turkey. Membership tends to be a lengthy and politically fraught process, during which countries have to align with EU rules and values.
The European Parliament has no formal say on foreign affairs but serves as a platform for European leaders to make their views known.
Ukraine has grown closer to the EU in the previous decade after signing an association agreement in 2014 to deepen economic and political ties.
Efforts by former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to renege on this deal in 2014 caused widespread public demonstrations that ousted him from office.
Worried about Kiev's pivot to the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened, annexing the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and subsequently began backing pro-Russian separatists in Donbass.
The insurgents had been fighting NATO-backed Ukrainian government forces for years before Moscow decided to invade last week.