28th Feb 2024

Frustration and gloom with Orbán ahead of Ukraine summit

  • The narrative emerging from EU institutions is the focus on finding a solution acceptable to all 27 leaders — but this is starting to seem more and more unlikely (Photo: European Union)
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The absence of any compromise with Hungary on the planned EU €50bn four-year aid package to Ukraine is driving a growing sense of frustration in Brussels, as the extraordinary meeting of EU leaders looms on Thursday (1 February).

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has been facing mounting pressure on different fronts during the last few weeks as an agreement on providing further EU financial assistance is urgently needed for Kyiv — with future US military aid for Ukraine still uncertain.

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And the mood got even worse after the Financial Times this week reported that EU officials in Brussels have a plan to sabotage Hungary's economy if Budapest blocks aid to Ukraine at the summit.

"The level of frustration is getting higher and higher," an EU official confirmed.

Difficult and intense negotiations on the so-called Ukraine Facility have been stuck for weeks, since the unsuccessful previous European Council meeting in December.

The main sticking point is that the list of demands by Orbán in order to lift his veto on the Ukrainian aid package is a no-go for some member states.

Orbán's chief political advisor Balázs Orbán (no relation) said earlier this week that Hungary was now open to using the EU budget for the Ukraine package and even issuing common debt to finance it under certain conditions.

"We have seen some movement from Hungary on certain parts of negotiation but it remains still difficult on the Ukraine facility," the EU official also said, pointing out that some of Orbán's demands are not even legal.

As part of the revision of the EU long-term budget, leaders from 26 member states agreed to provide Ukraine with a further €50bn until 2027 (€17bn in grants and €33bn in loans) — aiming to grant Ukraine predictability.

But Budapest is insisting on an annual or mid-term review based on unanimity to lift its veto — a seeming short-term compromise that in fact would empower Orbán to block funds at a later stage.

Nevertheless, the goal is to have a solution coming out of Thursday's meeting, to signal support for Ukraine.

The narrative coming out of EU institutions is focused on finding a solution acceptable to all 27 EU leaders, but this is starting to seem more and more unlikely.

"To date, we do not have an agreement. The result at 27 is not guaranteed," a senior EU diplomat said on Tuesday.

"We are exactly in the same place as in December," another diplomat said. "Hungary is not on board".

Expecting continued stalemate at and after Thursday's summit, EU officials have been exploring alternative options without Orbán.

"There's no intention to have Hungary out," an EU official said. "But many members did see this question of the war in Ukraine as existential ... and that's why they look at all those scenarios".

'Plan B'

A solution with 26 member states is "technically do-able" and thus also a source of frustration for Orbán, but "politically it's a huge challenge," a senior EU diplomat said.

This 'Plan B' would be decoupled from the EU budget and based on the delivery of aid from EU member states on a voluntary basis. This, however, would trigger fragmented aid among member states and it may delay aid urgently needed for Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the current impasse has also triggered Ukrainian criticism against EU heads of government.

"Each member state's vote is important, and opinion is valuable, but if one country is deliberately dragging the EU behind, neglecting ideas of solidarity, and just trading its vote for benefits — it is something that leaders should stop abruptly, before it becomes a new pattern and eventually destroy the Union," Oleksandr Baienkov, head of the Ukrainian NGO International and EU Sanctions Platform, told EUobserver.

Baienkov also said that a timely decision on budget support in the early months of 2024 is crucial, given the upcoming elections in the US in November and the start of the EU elections campaign in March.

EU support to Ukraine since the start of the war amounts to €85bn, according to the figures of the EU Commission.

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