Commission concedes: Von der Leyen should have personally replied to Ukraine leader

A mistake was made: A president should respond to a president.

That was the European Commission’s concession on Thursday, facing criticism over why a top aide, and not President Ursula von der Leyen, had declined an invitation from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to attend a 30th anniversary independence celebration in August, amid Russia’s increasing saber-rattling on the country’s border.

“Of course, the letter should have been naturally signed by her,” said Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer during his daily press briefing, reacting to reports about the apparent protocol-breaking response in POLITICO and French newspaper Libération.

Still, Mamer confusingly insisted the reply did not arrive “through the usual channels” to Ukrainian officials, and that von der Leyen would still write a response herself.

But the Commission president wouldn’t change her position, Mamer said, when pressed about whether von der Leyen should be attending the ceremony to show support for Kyiv at a time when European leaders have expressed worries about Russia’s massive troop build-up along its Ukrainian border.

“I can assure you that the president — whether she is free to go to the event or not — will make sure that the Commission will be represented during those events, at the appropriate level,” he insisted.

Mamer declined to say what conflicts von der Leyen might have in late August, a time when EU institutions are mostly shut for summer holidays.

The protocol kerfuffle began after Zelenskiy invited von der Leyen to Kyiv for a commemoration of Ukraine’s 1991 separation from the Soviet Union. The visit would have also coincided with the first-ever “Crimean Platform” summit, a gathering aimed at garnering international backing for Ukrainian sovereignty over the peninsula Russia invaded and annexed in 2014.

Von der Leyen’s cabinet chief, Björn Seibert, wrote back to the letter, declining the invitation, explaining the president’s calendar wouldn’t allow it.

Wednesday night, Seibert’s reply leaked to the press, leading to criticism from diplomats that von der Leyen had broken convention by having her top aide respond.

The revelation came amid days of debate about diplomatic procedure following last week’s so-called Sofagate scandal in Turkey, when von der Leyen was relegated to a couch while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and European Council President Charles Michel sat nearby in stately chairs.

Diplomats also complained that rejecting Ukraine’s invite could raise doubts about von der Leyen’s commitment to Kyiv amid fears Moscow may be planning another invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin’s troop build-up along the border is its largest since 2014 — the year the country annexed Crimea and pro-Russian separatists seized a large swathe of eastern Ukraine.

The EU’s backing of Ukraine is “extremely clear,” Mamer argued. “The Commission and the EU are of course side-by-side with Ukraine.”

He also made clear that von der Leyen “hopes to reiterate her support to Ukraine” at a meeting with Zelenzky “when it can be organized.”

Ukrainian officials have reacted to the Brussels developments with the same pained dismay they expressed throughout Donald Trump’s first impeachment, over a phone call he had with Zelenskiy. A spokeswoman for Zelenskiy declined to comment, as did the Ukrainian embassy in Brussels. 

In a further sign that the controversy over the letter was ill-timed for von der Leyen, Zelenskiy is due to have lunch on Friday at the Élysée Palace with French President Emmanuel Macron. Following their meeting, the two leaders will hold a videoconference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a French official said. 

Separately, Michel on Thursday had telephone conversations with Zelenskiy and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, in which he said he discussed concern over Russia’s military mobilization.

Officials said the calls were previously planned, but with von der Leyen’s treatment of Ukraine under scrutiny, they served to highlight Michel’s efforts to support Kyiv. Last month, Michel visited the contact line in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists still control the territories of Luhansk and Donetsk.

In its own summary of its call with Michel, Ukraine said Zelenskiy had thanked Michel for the EU’s support in the conflict with Russia. 

“The key focus of the meeting was on the aggravation of the security situation in eastern Ukraine,” according to a readout, which quoted Zelenskiy as saying: “A decisive and adequate reaction on the part of the international community is a guarantee of preventing further escalation and saving lives.” 

The statement said Michel and Zelenskiy had also agreed to set a date for the next Ukraine-EU summit meeting “in the second half of the year.” EU officials and diplomats have said von der Leyen’s office has resisted fixing a schedule for that gathering, set to be held in Kyiv.

Rym Momtaz contributed reporting.

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