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26th Feb 2024

Von der Leyen's summer plans undisclosed, after Ukraine snub

  • Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky sent an invite to Ursula von der Leyen to attend Ukraine's independence day in August (Photo: European Parliament)

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen will not go to Ukraine's independence day at the end of August due to an undisclosed busy schedule.

When asked what is on her agenda, the commission could not say.

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"I can't give you any details about the president's schedule at the end of August today," its chief spokesperson Eric Mamer told reporters on Thursday (15 April).

Instead, he said her schedule will only be revealed a week in advance of Ukraine's 30th anniversary held on 24 August.

Von der Leyen had received an invitation from Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky earlier this month to attend the celebration.

The invite had been sent while she was away on mission in Turkey and Jordan.

Her chief of cabinet, Björn Seibert, responded on her behalf in a letter he signed, informing Zelensky that she would not go.

Heads of cabinet do not, according to protocol, respond to heads of state.

It also sends potential mixed political messages to the Ukrainians.

On the one hand, the European Commission supports Ukraine against Russian aggression.

On the other, its president has other priorities during a holiday break.

Pressed over the issue, Mamer said Seibert's letter had not been sent and would not be either.

"The president will now sign the answer to president Zelensky and will certainly ensure that all answers to heads of state are signed by her," he said.

The issue comes at a time when Russia is amassing troops on Ukraine's eastern border, sparking fears of a possible confrontation.

It also follows meetings between the US and Nato earlier this week in Brussels, which had discussed Ukraine.

Ukraine is also on the agenda next week in talks among EU foreign affairs ministers.

But Ursula von der Leyen's busy August schedule is posing other questions - given that those working at the EU institutions are mostly away on summer holiday at that time.

Similar tensions over protocol came to a fore last week when von der Leyen was left sitting on the sidelines on a sofa at a meeting in Turkey.

The meeting had been held alongside European Council president Charles Michel and Turkey's leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, both seated front and centre in chairs.

Critics said it had exposed sexism and frosty relations between the two EU presidents vying for power on foreign policy matters.

The European Commission at the time said protocols in Turkey had not been followed.

But it had also not sent its own protocol team to Turkey, citing Covid-19 restrictions.

As for Ukraine and its 30th anniversary celebration, the European Commission said someone will attend.

"The president will ensure that the commission is represented, not withstanding her own prior commitments," said Mamer.

Meanwhile, Michel spoke to both Zelensky and Nato's secretary general Jens Stoltenberg on the telephone on Thursday.

"[The] EU is firm and united in its unequivocal supports to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity," he said in a tweet, following the call.

Zelensky had also invited him to the Crimea Platform summit, which seeks to shame Russia's occupation and aggression.

That summit is set to take place on 23 August. Michel will be in attendance.

Commission demands equal treatment of EU presidents

The European Commission says its president should be treated on an equal footing with the president of the European Council. The issue came to a head over a meeting in Ankara which saw von der Leyen separated from male counterparts.

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Nato and the US have put on a show of solidarity with Ukraine over Russia's military build-up, with American president Joe Biden offering to hold a summit with Russia to defuse tensions.

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