High-Level Kyiv Visit Aims to Deepen EU-Ukraine Ties

BRUSSELS (AP) -- Senior members of the European Union's executive branch traveled to Ukraine on Thursday looking to boost relations with the war-torn country and pave the way for it to one day join the bloc, but concerns over corruption and democratic deficiencies remain.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen led a team of 15 policy commissioners who were to spend the day discussing Ukraine's financial, business and energy needs, and how to bring the former Soviet state's legislation into line with EU standards.

The highly symbolic visit is the first EU political mission of its kind to a country at war. Von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, who chairs meetings of the bloc's heads of state and government, will hold a summit in Kyiv on Friday with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

"Ukraine's destiny is in Europe," Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who didn't make the trip, told EU lawmakers in Brussels, noting that the country's application to join was submitted last June. "The commission will support Ukraine throughout the whole accession process."

"Despite the continuing ruthless attacks of the aggressor, we are seeing a major momentum of reforms in Ukraine," Hahn said. But he noted that "the EU accession path is a marathon, not a sprint" and that the EU's 27 member countries must agree unanimously for Ukraine to join one day.

It's not clear exactly how the reforms can move at an accelerated pace almost one year into the war and with an economy being drained by defense spending and which relies on injections of foreign financial assistance, much of it from the United States and Europe.

Visibly things are moving. On Wednesday, Zelenskyy's government continued its recent crackdown on alleged corruption with the dismissal of more high-ranking officials. But an EU advisory mission set up in Kyiv in 2014 said then that it would take at least a decade to make a dent in the problem.

In a new report this week, the anti-corruption group Transparency International praised Ukraine for the steady progress it has made in battling the scourge in recent years, although it ranks the country a low 116 out of the 180 countries listed for perceived corruption.

"However, Russia's war of aggression has disrupted some of the reform processes and exacerbated corruption risks. Reconstruction and recovery efforts can be drastically undermined by wrongdoers pocketing funds, both during the war and after," the report said.

Briefing reporters before he left on the commission trip to Kyiv, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell noted that Ukrainian politicians sometimes say to him: "forget about conditions, I am at war, why are you telling me reforms?"

But Borrell said that "this is a merits-based process, and no one can jump over it. So we have to cooperate better and to try and be optimistic, and at the same time realistic."

EU member countries are divided over whether Ukraine should be allowed in. France and Germany, notably, believe that the bloc should be reformed and its decision-making processes streamlined before it allows in any new members.

They've championed a new grouping, the European Political Community, whose inaugural meeting in Prague last year was attended by representatives from more than 40 countries. Another summit is scheduled in Moldova in June.

During the visit, the EU announced that it's ramping up its military training mission for Ukraine, from an initial target of pushing 15,000 troops through the schooling to up to 30,000 troops. One focus is to train the crews of tanks that Western countries have offered Ukraine, Borrell said.