Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

EU hopes to save summit by buying off Orbán's veto

  • 'Ursula von der Leyen is paying the biggest bribe in EU history to the autocrat and Putin-friend Viktor Orban,' complained German Green MEP Daniel Freund (Photo: kremlin.ru)
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The success of the EU's final summit of 2023, primarily focussed on enlargement and budget, rests heavily on Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán.

At the heart of the debate are two key issues: signalling Kyiv's EU future by opening accession talks and approving a €50bn aid package for Ukraine — both opposed in principle by Hungary.

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While opening accession talks with Ukraine appears to be a 'red line' for Budapest, there is a sense of optimism that EU leaders might reach an agreement on ensuring some level of financial assistance to Kyiv.

Ahead of the summit, the EU Commission unblocked €10bn of EU funds to Hungary — a move widely seen as an attempt to buy off Hungary's veto power on giving financial and political support to Ukraine during the EU summit.

"It's important to listen to everyone's concerns … I hope that, in the end, we will reach an agreement but I am not that optimistic," said Estonia prime minister Kaja Kallas when meeting leaders for the EU-Western Balkans summit on Wednesday evening (13 December).

Orbán has repeated that he will block discussions on accession talks for Ukraine — a decision that requires unanimity.

But new Polish prime minister and former head of the EU Council Donald Tusk said that he will try to convince Orban that one of the most important issues for the EU at the moment is to effectively support Ukraine. "Any kind of Ukraine's fatigue or apathy on Ukraine is unacceptable".

"I would try to find the key to conversation not only with Mr Orbán," Tusk told reporters on Wednesday.

"In dialogue, Mr Orbán is a very pragmatic politician. He is trusted as a colleague," he also said, implying that an agreement is possible.

For his part, Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo warned Orbán that the EU is not a "Hungarian bazaar", where critical decisions can be traded.

Following previous messages in Hungarian outlets and social media, Orbán repeated that Hungary does not support Ukraine's fast accession to the EU.

'EU values for sale'

The commission's decision to unblock €10bn in cohesion funds to Hungary comes at a controversial moment, just a day after the Hungarian parliament adopted the controversial sovereignty law — deemed by the opposition and civil society as an attempt to silence critical voices.

"We as an institution have to follow the rules," a commission spokesperson said on Wednesday, referring to the fact that the institution is following EU legislation.

But the move has prompted widespread criticism over giving in Orbán's blackmailing.

"Von der Leyen is paying the biggest bribe in EU history to the autocrat and Putin-friend Viktor Orban," said German Green MEP Daniel Freund.

The leader of Renew Europe, French MEP Stéphane Séjourné, said that the commission's decision would mean "EU values are for sale".

"Giving in to Viktor Orbán's demands now will only prove that blackmailing our Union pays off," he also said.

The leaders of the centre-right European People's Party, centre-left Socialists & Democrats, liberal Renew Europe and Greens have raised concerns about the implications of such a decision as they believe that Hungary has not fulfilled the requirements related to the independence of the judiciary.

In a letter to EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, they argue that requirements linked to strengthening Hungary's National Judicial Council are yet to be assessed.

This is mainly because elections for this body are set for early January and there are already signs that this procedure "is not independent of the government's interests".

MEPs also warned about new threats to the rule of law in Hungary, explicitly mentioning the new "defence of sovereignty law" which they say risks leaving opposition parties, NGOs and other government critics without access to EU funds.

'Serious blow'

Meanwhile, a few EU national delegations have backed the commission's imminent decision to unfreeze funds to Hungary, but the main political parties in the European Parliament are against it.

"If the commission feels that the conditions have been met we have absolute trust in the commission," an EU diplomat said.

"We are not going to pay for a political decision," the diplomat also said, arguing that it is acceptable to free up cash to get Hungary to move on the Ukraine €50bn aid package and enlargement debates.

If the 27 EU member states cannot agree on the €50bn aid package to Ukraine, the bloc could financially support Kyiv with yet another macro-financial assistance programme.

However, diplomats argue that the best way to ensure predictability for Ukraine in the long term is to agree on the EU budget review, which includes this fresh money to Ukraine.

Failing to reach an agreement on financial aid to Kyiv would be a "serious blow" not only diplomatically but also for the morale of Ukraine, potentially affecting ongoing discussions in the US, a diplomat said.

Orban's sovereignty bill seen as fresh attack on rule of law

Hungary's new sovereignty law has been criticised by the opposition as 'another dark milestone' for the country's democratic values and the rule of law — and it could bring yet another clash between Budapest and Brussels.

EU agrees Ukraine accession talks as Orbán leaves room

The EU managed to open accession talks with Ukraine despite Hungary's opposition — a decision celebrated by Kyiv and deemed a "historic moment" — after Viktor Orbán did not participate in discussion.

Opinion

Hungary vs Ukraine: how do you deal with Orbán?

Viktor Orban insists EU membership is merit-based — which indeed it should be — but his own government has bluntly flouted the norms and values upon which the EU is founded, writes the central Europe director of Human Rights Watch.

Investigation

Far-right MEPs least disciplined in following party line

In a fractious parliamentary vote, the level of party discipline often decides the fate of legislation. Party discipline among nationalists and far-right MEPs is the weakest, something potentially significant after the June elections. Data by Novaya Gazeta Europe and EUobserver.

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