Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

Orbán's Ukraine-veto threat escalates ahead of EU summit

  • French president Emmanuel Macron (l) and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán in Versailles, France, in March 2023 (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)
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Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has threatened to wreck next week's EU summit by vetoing Ukraine accession talks — but a veto-fiasco might be exactly what some leaders want.

Orbán personally wrote to EU Council president Charles Michel on Monday (4 December) warning that the summit would be a "failure" if Michel tried to get consensus on Ukraine.

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The European Commission recommended opening the Ukraine talks in November, in what would mark a strategic leap forward for the EU.

But Orbán ridiculed Brussels in his letter, saying: "The commission's recent proposal ... marks the end of the European Union's enlargement policy as an objective and merit-based instrument."

He also added a sub-veto on the EU's next long-term budget, which includes €50bn in aid to Ukraine, and which he called "unsubstantiated, unbalanced, and unrealistic".

Orbán has in the past successfully vetoed little things on behalf of his political allies in Moscow and Jerusalem, such as minor details of EU sanctions on Russia or low-level EU statements criticising Israel.

If Michel was to give in to all the demands in Orbán's two-page letter, it would gut the official agenda of the 14 December EU leaders' meeting, causing an embarrassment of epic proportions.

But EU politicians have become used to the Hungarian's pre-summit grandstanding, before usually seeing him cave in the end.

"He's always threatening with vetoes when he's in Budapest — and by the time he arrives in Brussels, especially when leaders are behind closed doors, he acts like a little puppy," said Ágnes Vadai, an MP from the centre-left Democratic Coalition party in Hungary.

"If European politicians give him the stage, he'll act up. If they don't, he won't," she told EUobserver on Tuesday.

Many also see Orbán's Ukraine veto as yet another gambit to claw back €22bn of EU money for Budapest, rather than a profound decision to side with Russia against the West, making matters easier to resolve.

Daniel Freund, a German Green MEP in Brussels, called it "Orbán's brutal negotiation strategy to access frozen EU funds".

Giving in would be a "huge mistake", Freund said, given that the EU froze Orbán's cash to punish him for his authoritarian rule at home.

But the EU commission has already begun unfreezing some of his money, raising expectation of an emerging deal.

Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron has invited Orbán for pre-summit talks in Paris this week.

But if Macron aims to get a breakthrough behind closed doors then, by Vadai's warning, the French leader also risks giving centre stage to Orbán's anti-Ukraine manoeuvres.

And for some EU diplomats, there might be more complicated games afoot than just another pro-Russian Orbán bluff.

The EU summit is also due to give a green light to opening accession talks with Moldova and grant conditional EU "candidate" status to Georgia.

The prospect of another wave of enlargement has prompted debate on what internal EU changes would need to be made to accommodate several poor, and in Ukraine's case, large, new members.

France and Germany have said the EU should take more foreign policy decisions by vote instead of consensus, but smaller EU countries do not want to yield power to Paris and Berlin.

Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Slovakia are also more wary of opening the door to Ukraine than they admit in public, diplomatic sources said.

And all this meant that an Orbán-veto drama might prove useful to different EU leaders in the run-up to the pre-Christmas summit "moment of truth", an EU diplomat said.

"I think the Netherlands, Slovakia, and Austria are quite happy to hide behind Orbán," the EU diplomat said.

"I even suspect he might have quiet German support," the contact added.

"The Orbán row suits France and Germany by promoting QMV [qualified majority voting], while keeping their hands clean of blocking Ukraine, which they let others do for them instead," the EU diplomat said.

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