February 7, 2023 - 5:00pm

A planned visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Brussels this week would be hailed as another step forward on Ukraine’s European path. But with Ukraine left disappointed by the EU’s apparent lack of commitment to its membership application at a summit in Kyiv last week, Zelenskyy’s return visit may not bring him any concrete results. That’s if it even goes ahead, as leaks from Brussels threaten to scupper the plan entirely.

The EU gave President Zelenskyy an “open invitation” to Brussels, but Kyiv didn’t leap at the offer: Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Zelenskyy would only make overseas trips with the prospect of “specific results for Ukraine”. Security fears have been cited as potentially thwarting the visit. While Zelenskyy’s trip to Washington in December was shrouded in secrecy, the EU has seemingly leaked his planned arrival days in advance.

And even if the trip does happen, it’s hard to see what benefits it will bring to Ukraine. The rhetoric at last week’s EU-Ukraine summit was upbeat, but there will have been private disappointment about the EU’s marked reticence on the big question of Ukrainian membership. Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal set out an ambitious two-year timetable for his country’s EU accession ahead of the summit, but the EU poured cold water on these plans and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen refused to be drawn on a specific timeframe.  

The obstacles to Ukraine joining the bloc are real. Yet at the same time, the EU seems to lack the political will to make many exceptions for the country’s extraordinary circumstances. French President Emmanuel Macron had earlier said it could take “several decades” for Ukraine to join the EU, and his new European Political Community, a larger association of European countries, was seen partly as a way of keeping Ukraine happy without granting it full membership status. 

Zelenskyy would be right to be wary about being fobbed off again by EU leaders, who may be keener on photo opportunities than real progress. Going to Brussels now could set a precedent in which he appears as just another peripheral “hopeful” in the EU’s political orbit, rather than a unique statesman leading a war effort for the sake of his country’s European path. 

The visit could be uncomfortable in other ways, too. Plans for Zelenskyy to join a lunch of the European Council would bring him into direct contact with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who provoked outrage in recent days by describing Ukraine as ungovernable, saying that “it’s Afghanistan now” and a “no man’s land”. Ukraine summoned the Hungarian ambassador over the “completely unacceptable remarks,” while the Mayor of Dnipro described Orbán‘s government as “bastards” and “scumbags”. As the EU tries to agree another sanctions package to be imposed on Russia, now is not the time for Ukraine’s tensions with the bloc’s leading sanctions rebel to be exacerbated. 

There’s also an undercurrent of awkwardness in plans for Zelenskyy to address the European Parliament. While concerns about corruption and legal alignment are major obstacles to Ukrainian EU accession, the EU is also seriously worried about how Ukrainian membership would affect its own political functioning, especially in the European Parliament, where as a member Ukraine would have one of the largest voting blocs. For many, a personal address from Zelenskyy would ram home this looming political issue. 

After last week’s summit, where EU support for the Ukrainian cause was underlined but the bloc’s true commitment to Ukraine’s European future was left vague, there will be concerns about whether a trip by Zelenskyy to Brussels amounts to much more than a PR exercise. That’s a small return for a major security risk and, right now, Zelenskyy needs more.

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz