BRUSSELS — European Union leaders visiting Kyiv on Friday laid out the ways in which Ukraine will slowly integrate into the bloc, but stopped well short of committing to quick membership.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine was meeting with the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and the European Council president, Charles Michel, with a aim of extracting commitments to let Ukraine soon join the bloc’s 27 member nations, which represent about 450 million people.
“Our goal is absolutely clear: to start negotiations on Ukraine’s membership in the European Union this year,” Mr. Zelensky told the news media on Friday afternoon in Kyiv. “We will not lose a single day in our work to bring Ukraine and the E.U. closer together.”
The Ukrainian president previously has described E.U. membership as an unwavering goal for the country, highlighted governmental overhauls he said have been pushed through despite the war and said he expected E.U. nations to recognize Ukraine’s progress toward membership.
The European leaders repeated promises that Ukraine has a future within the European Union but did not respond to Mr. Zelensky’s comment about the country starting negotiations this year.
A joint E.U.-Ukraine statement released after the meetings in Kyiv said that Ukraine had made efforts toward its bid to join the bloc, and that the European Commission would offer an update in the spring.
In the past few days, the Ukrainian authorities have conducted raids and fired officials in a ramped-up effort to illustrate a commitment to fighting corruption — an area of concern for Western allies pouring weapons and financial aid into the country. Ukraine stands to receive hundreds of billions of dollars from the European Union and other allies, including the United States, for reconstruction, and wants to show that the funds will not be lost to corruption.
Under pressure from public opinion and the United States to illustrate the bloc’s long-term commitment to Ukraine, E.U. leaders agreed to grant the country, as well as Moldova, candidate status in June. But Ms. von der Leyen and Mr. Michel have no authorization from the 27 E.U. members to make promises to Mr. Zelensky or to imply that they will bend the bloc’s stringent rules to let Ukraine in faster or with looser demands.
E.U. membership would give Ukraine access to the world’s richest group of countries and biggest free-trade area. It would also permanently tie the country to its European neighbors, extending a nonmilitary but crucial shield against Russia’s aggression.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia considers Ukraine’s E.U. aspirations a provocation, casting them as aggression against Russia.
The E.U. accession process typically takes a decade or longer and requires deep changes aimed at aligning with the rest of the bloc. Issues for many countries include economic overhauls, safeguarding judicial independence and a free press, ensuring a competitive democratic political system, and fighting corruption.
Ukraine wants to fast-track the process. Denis Shmyhal, Ukraine’s prime minister, said in a recent interview with Politico that he would like Ukraine to join the bloc in two years.
Mr. Shmyhal’s target is widely regarded as unrealistic, with President Emmanuel Macron of France saying Ukraine’s accession process would take “decades.”
Ms. von der Leyen and Mr. Michel on Friday showcased some of the help the E.U. is already offering Ukraine, including loans; legal and technical guidance to start integrating it into the E.U. market for goods and services; and helping Ukraine shore up its energy supply after suffering devastating Russian hits to its electricity infrastructure.
Ms. von der Leyen said she is preparing to lay out a 10th E.U. sanctions package to target Russia’s economy, timed for the first anniversary of the invasion on Feb. 24.
Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.
— Matina Stevis-Gridneff