Draft conclusions for next week’s European summit still include the key line “the European Council decides to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova.” But what is widely seen as a politically crucial decision is still far from a done deal. Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban, close to Vladimir Putin and long opponent of Ukraine aid and its accession to the EU, is set to veto both the talks and a proposal to assist Ukraine’s budget with up to €50 billion over the next four years. Unanimity voting allows him to hold up decisions backed by all 26 other member states.
“I respectfully urge you not to invite the European Council to decide on these matters...as the obvious lack of consensus would inevitably lead to failure,” Orban asks European Council President Charles Michel in a recent letter.
Some are willing to accept Orban’s insistence that he is genuinely concerned that Kyiv is fighting an unwinnable war and that the EU should press it to make concessions to broker a peace. But most diplomats see his threatened veto as a means of holding the issue hostage to Hungary’s demand for the unfreezing of funds from Brussels withheld over rule of law concerns.
Some €10 billion under Hungary’s Covid-19 recovery programme, along with about €22 billion in regular EU structural funds, have been frozen since December of last year over concerns Budapest is still not complying with human rights safeguards and undermining judicial independence. Two weeks ago, the commission endorsed a €900 million pre-payment not linked to reforms.
Even at the cost of a failed summit, it is crucial that EU leaders do not succumb to Hungary’s blackmail by unfreezing payments. To do so would undermine one of the only means the union has to hold individual member states to account for failures to maintain basic democratic standards. It would also encourage others, in breach of EU conventions, to leverage their veto on issues unrelated to the grievances they want addressed. Collective decision-making would then increasingly become impossible.