Ursula von der Leyen: 'The challenges of rebuilding Ukraine are enormous, but not insurmountable'

Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission delivers a speech during the Ukraine Recovery Conference URC, Monday, July 4, 2022 in Lugano, Switzerland. The URC is organised to initiate the political process for the recovery of Ukraine after the attack of Russia to its territory. (Credit: Ursula Von der Leyen/EU Commission)

The Ukraine Recovery Conference started on Monday in Lugano with the speeches of the federal councillor Ignazio Cassis, the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky via video conference.

After the storm, there comes the sun. For the opening of the conference in Lugano, the president of the Confederation Ignazio Cassis got some help from the weather. While the war in Ukraine continues to rage and devastate the country, some one thousand participants in the Lugano meeting had one thing in mind: reconstruction. There was no question of drawing up a precise plan, but the need to start an essential discussion on the future of the country and on the principles that should govern Ukraine’s recovery. In his home region, the head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs welcomed the joint work accomplished by Kyiv and Bern to set up the conference.

‘Long process’

In a period where we are witnessing “horror, suffering”, it is important to offer a perspective of “peace”, hammered Ignazio Cassis. "“It is never too early to prepare” for reconstruction. In fact, “Russia’s act of aggression has forced us to unite”, he said.

The aim of the meeting at the Palazzo dei Congressi in Ticino is to develop a framework for a process that promises to be very long. The Lugano discussions, he added, should provide a clearer picture of the direction in which reconstruction efforts should go when the end of hostilities allows. The federal councillor did not hesitate to use a phrase from the Biden administration to summarise the needs: “Build back better”. He elegantly referred to the great writer Hermann Hesse, buried in the cemetery of Sant’Abbondio di Montagnola above Lugano: “Where friendly paths cross, the whole world seems for a moment to be home.” He also pointed out that the writer’s wife had Ukrainian roots.

Speaking via video conference from Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, wearing a black T-shirt for the occasion, recalled that Ukraine’s fight is that of Europe and democratic values against “missile terrorism” and “barbaric strikes” of Russia, against artillery attacks on countless medical centres. “Russia, with its missiles, wants to destroy every living space. This has caused more than 12 million Ukrainians to flee. How many will come back?”. Reconstruction, continued the Ukrainian head of state, is the task of all democracies. He promised that the reconstruction efforts would be long-term and would require maximum transparency.

See also: Lugano conference on Ukraine, a missed opportunity for international Geneva?

International conference after the summer

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, who made the trip to Lugano, even though the top European officials from France, Germany and Italy did not want to mark the meeting with their presence, insisted: “Ukraine will need to make courageous reforms that will have to be carried out together with investors.” This will be the best response to this “absurd war”. According to her, the fight of Ukraine is that of Europe, its values, and a “moral duty”. “We will help Ukraine to win this war and to win the peace”. Ursula von der Leyen, enthusiastic, noted that Brussels wants “Ukraine to become a member of the European Union” and that she will do everything possible to help it on this path. The challenges, she admitted, are “colossal”, but she is convinced that Ukraine will overcome them and will come out of this phase strengthened and modernised.

Read also: ‘Help Ukraine like it’s your own country’ - Ukrainians to participants of Lugano conference

With this in mind, the Commission president announced that together with Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, the EU would convene a high-level international conference at the end of the summer focused on the reconstruction of Ukraine, “never before seen on this scale.” But in tribute to her Lugano host, Ursula von der Leyen added that the “Lugano principles”, which will be published tomorrow as part of the official summit declaration, will form the basis for future work.

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This article was first published in French in Le Temps

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