27th Feb 2024

EU agrees Ukraine accession talks as Orbán leaves room

  • The decision on opening accession talks with Ukraine was possible because Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán left the room at the time of the discussions — a technical 'absention' (Photo: Council of the European Union)
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The EU managed to open accession talks with Ukraine on Thursday (14 December) despite Hungary's opposition — a decision celebrated by Kyiv and deemed a "historic moment".

"This is a victory for Ukraine. A victory for all of Europe. A victory that motivates, inspires, and strengthens," Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky said, reacting to the news coming out of the EU summit in Brussels.

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EU commission Ursula von der Leyen described the decision as "strategic" and as an important day in the history of Europe, while EU Council president Charles Michel told reporters that this was "a very powerful political signal" for Ukraine.

For his part, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán said that starting accession negotiations with Ukraine was "a bad decision", and clarified: "Hungary did not participate in the decision."

In fact, the decision was taken by the other 26 member states in the room. German chancellor Olaf Scholz asked Orbán to leave the room Orbán when enlargement conversations started.

The agreement, which was quickly announced after a few hours of discussions during the EU summit, came as a surprise for many who had expected long, drawn-out discussions — especially given that the enlargement decisions require unanimity.

The conclusions on Ukraine were "not blocked by any member states," said an EU official.

Orbán's momentary absence was pre-agreed ahead of the vote, and according to EU diplomats, it is legally possible to do so — and it can be read as an abstention.

EU heads of state and government also greenlighted launching talks with Moldova and granting candidate status to Georgia.

"Moldova turns a new page today with the EU's go-ahead for accession talks," said Moldova's president Maia Sandu.

They agreed to open negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina once enough progress on the requirements has been achieved. They will reverse to this issue later in 2024.

"Historic day! Against all odds, we achieved a decision to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova," said Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas.

Similarly, Finish prime minister Petteri Orpo described it as "a historic moment".

"Important decision … Clear signal that your [Ukraine and Moldova] future is in the EU," said Swedish prime minister Ulf Kristersson.

Zelensky's plea: 'don't betray'

A few hours before the deal was reached, Orbán stated that the accession process is not a simply theoretical issue, arguing that previous conditions needed to be met to initiate the formal talks with Ukraine.

"Enlargement is a merit-based, legally-detailed process, which has preconditions … there is no reason to negotiate membership of Ukraine now. Even not to negotiate" the Hungarian PM told reporters at his arrival to the summit.

Just this morning, Zelensky called on the member states to make a political decision, following the reforms they have accomplished in the last months to become a member of the EU.

"​Today is the day when determination will either be in Brussels or Moscow," Zelensky told EU leaders ahead of the discussion from Norway, where he is discussing military support for Ukraine.

"Do not betray the people and their faith in Europe," he added. "You all realised that now is not the time for half-measures or hesitation. ​And it's very important that Europe doesn't fall back into indecision today."

Last November, the European Commission recommended the EU leaders opening accession talks with Kyiv, as 90 percent of the necessary reforms were already done.

Zelensky spoke about a clear schedule for the EU.

First, there is a non-binding political decision, and in March 2024, the commission is expected to inform leaders about progress made on the listed recommendations for Ukraine and Moldova.

"This process is very long, there are phases that require unanimity, and others not," an EU diplomat said, referring to the fact that Hungary may have another possibility to veto the decision next year.

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