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Wider Europe Briefing: Unpacking Zelenskiy's Brussels Trip, Plus Sweden And Finland's NATO Stumble

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy poses next to European Parliament President Roberta Metsola after arriving for a summit in Brussels on February 9.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy poses next to European Parliament President Roberta Metsola after arriving for a summit in Brussels on February 9.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on two major issues: the main takeaways from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's Brussels visit and the latest in Sweden's and Finland's increasingly frustrating bids to join NATO.

Brief #1: The Main Takeaways From Zelenskiy's Visit To Brussels

What You Need To Know: Just a week after European Council President Charles Michel and a large part of the European Commission visited Kyiv, it was Zelenskiy's turn to visit Brussels on February 9 -- his first stop in the EU capital since the Russian invasion almost one year ago.

The visit came after a brief stopover in London and a meeting in Paris with both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Zelenskiy's first foreign trip since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, came in late December last year when he made a sudden appearance in Washington, D.C. to try to secure U.S. approval for Patriot missile deliveries to Ukraine.

On his way back from the United States, he also briefly met with Polish President Andrzej Duda in Rzeszow, Poland.

The fact that he visited the United States, Poland, the United Kingdom, and France all before visiting Brussels raised some hackles among a few EU officials. Yet his choice of itinerary reflects one clear reality: Ukraine needs more weapons, especially amid reports of an impending Russian military offensive.

In this respect, Brussels isn't the priority.

In London, Zelenskiy secured long-range missiles and the training of Ukrainian pilots on NATO-standard fighter jets. In Paris, Macron was very much open to the idea of sending Mirage planes. In Brussels, Zelenskiy addressed all 27 EU leaders, first in a plenary session and then in smaller groups, with the aim of securing deliveries of fighter jets as soon as possible. (Since the invasion began, the Ukrainian president has attended nearly every EU summit via video link.)

Deep Background: Zelenskiy's Brussels trip was more notable for the various photo ops than any concrete deliverables. Known as "leak city," his Brussels visit was reported by the press three days in advance, while his journeys to London and Paris were kept tightly under wraps.

Before he even landed, EU institutions were vying for who would host him first. In the end, there was something of a classic "Brussels fudge," in which Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen greeted him at the airport, while his first proper appearance was at the European Parliament.

It was the parliament that first pushed for Ukraine's EU membership and its president, Roberta Metsola, was the first leader of an EU institution to go to Kyiv after the breakout of the war.

Drilling Down:

  • On the question of Ukraine's EU membership, Zelenskiy pushed for the opening of EU accession talks in 2023. The EU summit conclusions, hammered out among EU leaders and issued after he left, stated that: "The European Union acknowledges Ukraine's determination to meet the necessary requirements in order to start accession negotiations as soon as possible." That is seen as the clearest sign yet from Brussels that negotiations can indeed be opened this year.
  • The Ukrainian president also asked for more EU sanctions, in particular for more measures against Russian drones, missiles, and IT services. He also called for the sanctioning of Rosatom, Russia's state-owned nuclear energy firm.
  • Talks with EU ambassadors on the EU's 10th sanctions package on Russia started over the weekend with a view to have them adopted by the first anniversary of Russia's invasion on February 24. It will likely consist of many of the things Zelenskiy was asking for, including a ban on European companies exporting various technologies to Russia, exports that are worth some 10 billion euros ($10.7 billion).
  • More energy sanctions, for instance those targeting the Russian nuclear sector, are likely to be off the table as Hungary has made clear that it won't green-light such moves. Much was made of footage from the summit where Zelenskiy was applauded by EU leaders, with the exception of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The Hungarian leader later noted that Budapest belongs to the "peace camp" and was pushing for an immediate cease-fire.
  • Orban was not the only one giving slightly mixed messages. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev said before the meeting that he was against sending more weapons to Ukraine and that Brussels should look to "all diplomatic efforts" to peacefully end the war.
  • Perhaps the most striking revelation of the day was when Zelenskiy told EU leaders that Ukraine had intercepted a Russian plan to destroy Moldova, noting that it contained "who, when, and how" and that he had informed Moldovan President Maia Sandu of the alleged plot. The Moldovan intelligence service later confirmed Moscow was trying to destabilize the country.

Brief #2: Sweden And Finland Hit A Roadblock In Their NATO Bid

What You Need To Know: In the fall of 2022, it looked like Finland and Sweden would join NATO, either by the end of the year or at the start of this one, in what would have been the quickest accession ever to the military alliance.

The Nordic pair applied to join in May 2022 as a direct result of Russia's attack on Ukraine. By June 2022, at a NATO summit in Madrid, the 30 members of the alliance gave their go-ahead. By late October 2022, 28 members had already ratified the Nordic pair's accession protocols.

Nearly four months down the line, not much progress has been made. Worse, it's probably fair to say things have unraveled.

While Hungary has indicated that its parliament might ratify the accession protocol when its plenary spring session commences on February 27, things are looking bleak regarding the ratification of Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blocked the Swedish path to NATO for the foreseeable future, with Ankara saying Stockholm hasn't lived up to the obligations of the memorandum agreed in Madrid in June 2022 between Finland, Sweden, and Turkey. (Ankara wants to see progress from Finland, and notably Sweden, in the areas of fighting terrorism, the lifting of arms embargoes on Turkey, and fulfilling Turkish extradition requests.)

What especially annoyed Turkey were two protests held in Sweden in January. One was organized by a pro-Kurdish group and ended with an Erdogan effigy hanging upside down near Stockholm's city hall. At the other, a few days later, a Swedish-Danish far-right politician and provocateur set fire to a copy of the Koran outside the Turkish Embassy in the Swedish capital.

Deep Background: The fallout from those January protests has been brutal. Swedish ministerial visits to Turkey have been canceled; the Swedish Embassy in Ankara had to temporarily close due to demonstrations, with more threats against Swedish consulates across the country.

Swedish and NATO officials I have spoken to on the condition of anonymity now concede that little progress will be made before the Turkish parliamentary and presidential elections slated for May 14.

The NATO summit in Vilnius on July 11-12 is probably the earliest Sweden and Finland can become members -- either because Erdogan is no longer focused on the elections or because the country's long-time leader is no longer in power.

Drilling Down:

  • What is clear is that the spat with Sweden has boosted the Turkish president's ratings in opinion polls. For the first time since he came to power in 2002, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) is facing a real electoral challenge with galloping inflation and six opposition parties forming a credible coalition.
  • After last week's devastating earthquakes in Turkey, Sweden was quick to offer and mobilize help to Ankara, which could lead to better relations. There is a precedent for that: The last time such a large earthquake hit the country, back in 1999, Greek help paved the way for a thaw in Athens-Ankara relations, with Greece green-lighting Turkey's EU candidate status a few years later.
  • Regarding Finland, Turkey has indicated it is ready to decouple the ratification process and just give Helsinki the green light. In January, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto noted that his country would look at other options if the situation remained the same. That stance was later softened, with the Finnish president and prime minister both reiterating that they wanted to join together with Sweden.
  • Still, a recent poll showed that the majority of Finns would happily go it alone, if necessary. Last week, one of the biggest Finnish newspapers published a story, based on anonymous sources in the country's security apparatus, that claimed that Finland is ready to fly solo, largely because it feels vulnerable given its 1,300-kilometer border with Russia.
  • In the meantime, Sweden is trying to implement as much as possible from the Madrid memorandum. An arms embargo against Turkey has been lifted and a new anti-terror law will enter into force in June. But the new law will not ban the waving of flags, such as that of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which previously has enraged Turkey.
  • Sweden will also not ban the burning of the Koran, something that Erdogan has asked for, citing both freedom of speech and the fact that blasphemy isn't a crime in the country. However, a recent request for another demonstration in which the Koran would be burned was turned down, with the authorities citing threats to public security.
  • The latest spat is also causing political strains in Stockholm. The new right-wing government, which came to power in October 2022, thought it would have an easier time dealing with Ankara as the previous ruling Social Democrats enjoyed widespread support from Sweden's Kurdish community. But this new government relies on support from the nationalist and populist Sweden Democrats, whose party leader, Jimmie Akesson, recently called Erdogan "an Islamic dictator."
  • Stockholm will also have problems extraditing people, with Erdogan now insisting that 130 people -- Kurds and opposition figures -- be handed over. While a handful have been extradited over the past few months, the Swedish government and Supreme Court have blocked the deportation of five people.

Looking Ahead

The European Parliament will meet for four days, starting on February 13, in Strasbourg for its February plenary. It is expected to pass two resolutions calling for the immediate release of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.

While both resolutions are nonbinding, they will likely cause a stir in both Tbilisi and Moscow. Both are serving prison terms on charges their supporters say are politically motivated.

NATO defense ministers will meet in Brussels on February 14-15. The question of sending more arms to Ukraine will dominate the agenda, but it is also worth looking out for the possible adoption of the military alliance's so-called political guidance, which spells out what priorities, in terms of military capabilities, NATO should have over the next five years.

There will also be a discussion on how to address the alliance's depleting arms stockpiles, including by green-lighting new weapons procurement. NATO will also look at the construction of more storage facilities.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak or on e-mail at

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

About The Newsletter

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Tuesday morning on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

To subscribe, click here.

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