By Luiza Ilie and Manuel Ausloos
CONSTANTA, Romania (Reuters) -President Emmanuel Macron voiced a tougher line on Russia on Wednesday and said Europe needed to send a strong signal to Ukraine as he sought to assuage concerns in Kyiv and among some European allies over his previous stance towards Moscow.
Macron arrived in Romania on Tuesday for a three-day trip to Ukraine’s eastern neighbours including Moldova, before possibly heading to Kyiv on Thursday on a visit with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, two diplomatic sources said.
The symbolic visit would come a day before the European Commission makes a recommendation on Ukraine’s status as an EU candidate, something the biggest European nations have been lukewarm about and are set to discuss at a leaders’ summit on June 23-24.
“We are at a point when we (Europeans) need to send clear political signals, us Europeans, towards Ukraine and its people when it is resisting heroically,” Macron said, without giving details.
The French leader has been criticised by Ukraine and eastern European allies for what they perceive as his ambiguous backing for Ukraine in the war against Russia.
French officials have in recent days sought to strengthen the public messaging, while Macron appeared to take a tougher line on Tuesday evening when he was with his troops.
“We will do everything to stop Russia’s war forces, to help the Ukrainians and their army and continue to negotiate,” he told French and NATO troops at a military base in Romania.
Macron has in recent weeks repeatedly said it was vital not to “humiliate” Russia so a diplomatic solution could be found when fighting ended and he has continued to keep communication channels open with the Kremlin open, riling more hawkish allies.
Speaking alongside Iohannis, Macron downplayed those comments, but insisted that Ukraine, which he hoped would win the war, would eventually have to negotiate with Russia.
“We share a continent. Geography is stubborn and at the end of it, Russia is there. It was there yesterday, it’s there today and will be there tomorrow,” he told reporters.
France leads a NATO battle group in Romania of about 800 troops, including 500 French troops alongside others from the Netherlands and Belgium. Paris has also deployed a surface-to air missile system.
Macron heads to Moldova later on Wednesday to support a country many fear could be drawn into the conflict in neighbouring Ukraine.
The focus may turn to Kyiv on Thursday, with diplomatic sources saying the European leaders may head to Ukraine’s capital.
Macron declined to comment on “logistical matters”, but said it was important to hold new talks with Ukraine on military, financial matters and issues related to exporting grains from the country.
Romania’s Iohannis said support should include offering Ukraine candidate status in the European Union.
“In my opinion, the candidate status must be granted as soon as possible, it is a correct solution from a moral, economic and security perspective,” Iohannis said, adding that there were efforts to find a feasible solution to differences among European powers.
(Additional reporting and writing by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Edmund Blair and Frank Jack Daniel)