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27th Feb 2024

Ukraine: Orbán veto would mean 'failure' of EU leaders

  • “For Ukrainian people, this is a huge and very important decision,” said Ukraine's deputy prime minister Olha Stefanishyna, referring to the EU's decision on accession talks (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)
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Hungary's potential veto drama on Ukraine accession talks threatens to cast a shadow of collective failure over the EU's next summit, Ukraine's deputy prime minister Olha Stefanishyna has warned.

"By the end of the day, it is a decision of 27 [EU member states] and it's either taken or not. Either there is a consensus or veto. That's very clear," Stefanishyna told a small group of journalists on Monday (11 December) in Brussels.

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In a high-stakes diplomatic tango, EU leaders will meet this week to decide whether to open negotiations talks for future EU membership.

But Hungary is threatening to leave Kyiv empty-handed at a crucial moment in the conflict.

Many see Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán's Ukraine veto as yet another attempt to unblock €22bn of EU money for Budapest.

But "the stakes are really high" this time, Stefanishyna said. "For Ukrainian people, this is a huge and very important decision".

She said the results of the upcoming EU summit could affect the credibility of the EU's enlargement process and ongoing discussions in Washington — after the US Senate shot down president Joe Biden's $100bn foreign aid plan (to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan).

In Kyiv, meanwhile, optimism prevails.

And Ukraine's deputy prime minister, who met on Monday with Hungarian foreign affairs minister Péter Szijjártó to discuss the veto, believes it was possible to reach an agreement on opening negotiations with Ukraine by Friday. "It is about the [political] will," she said.

"The European Union is not only Hungary" and the reasons behind the Budapest veto fiasco have little to do with Ukraine and more with Orbán's internal politics, she said.

"It's very legitimate that a member state could put a sort of conditions for discussion," Stefanishyna said.

But the issue has become "extremely emotional for Hungary," she added, adding that the EU's veto-laden process is far from ideal.

'The European future of Ukraine'

Ukraine, which has been fighting a full-scale invasion by Russia since February last year, was first granted candidate status by the European Council in June 2022.

The move was seen as the first guarantee of "the European future of Ukraine," Stefanishyna said.

But unanimity has proved to be a main stumbling block in the enlargement process in the past.

And the Hungarian veto to last month's recommendation by the European Commission on opening accession talks at the summit in December is yet another example of how EU unanimity rules can be gamed for national interests.

"Ukraine has done everything [to ensure the EU opens negotiation talks]," Stefanishyna said, referring to recommendations made by the commission to legally align the country closer to European norms.

"This might look so easy in this capital, but it required enormous efforts to make the decisions every day," she said. "No other country was under such pressing circumstances", she added, referring to the war-time reforms.

The European Commission recommended last month opening accession talks with Ukraine, but its report said only four of its seven recommendations had been fulfilled.

This includes legislative reform of the judiciary, appointing anti-corruption officials, and bringing Ukraine's media industry in line with EU standards.

On the negative side, the commission report argues that more can be done to fight corruption in the country, and this is also a concern for Hungary.

Other concerns relate to the deoligarchisation and protection of national minorities.

The Ukrainian parliament recently approved amendments to the law of national minorities.

This was one of the "most complicated issues," Stefanishyna said, arguing that the government had already received positive feedback from both Romania and Hungary.

'Edge of survival'

Meanwhile, Ukraine is also hoping EU leaders will reach an agreement on the commission's proposal to grant €50bn of financial aid for Kyiv for the period 2021-2027.

The package is designed to help pay wages, pensions and certain basic public services.

When asked about the consequences of not finding a breakthrough at the upcoming summit, Stefanishyna said that interim solutions could be found.

"But it definitely would be at the edge of survival," she said, expressing concerns about having zero predictability for the next year.

Orbán said already in June that the commission's proposal for the EU budget, which includes aid to Ukraine, is "frivolous".

He said that it was not "acceptable" that Brussels was blocking recovery funds to Hungary while advocating to give an additional €50bn to Kyiv, prompting speculation on a potential workaround by the EU26.

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