There was only one reason why the 27 European Union leaders gathered in Brussels for a one-day summit on Thursday: because Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban had refused to agree to a €50 billion financing package for Ukraine the last time they met in December.
As the summit approached, EU officials spoke of growing frustration with the Hungarian populist.
The European Parliament called for the use of article seven, the so-called nuclear option that, if all 26 other leaders agree, would allow the EU to strip Hungary of its voting rights on the grounds of authoritarian backsliding that has eroded the rule of law.
Last time around, Mr Orban threatened to veto the start of Ukraine’s membership talks to join the EU. EU funds for Hungary that had been frozen over rule-of-law concerns were released just on the eve of the summit in which he relented, a coincidence of timing that made it appear that Budapest had been offered a sweetener, though the European Commission strongly denies this.
This time, it was clear there would be no rerun.
In the build-up to the summit, a document was leaked from within the European Council that suggested officials were calculating Hungary’s level of dependence on the EU economically and what would happen if this was cut off. Officials played it down as a mere briefing document, but indications were that the EU was moving towards using not the carrot but the stick.
Leaders began meeting in small groups the night before Thursday’s summit. In the morning, the start ran late as a photograph was released by the European Council showing French president Emmanuel Macron, German chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni meeting Mr Orban in an apparent “mini summit” to try to resolve the issue before the official summit began.
As leaders began arriving at the European Council headquarters they made their frustrations clear to the waiting media.
“Viktor definitely wants to be the centre of attention every time we are here,” said Estonia’s Kaja Kallas.
Lithuanian president Gitanas Nausèda accused him of “misusing the unanimity principle” in EU decision-making. “No one can blackmail 27 EU countries,” Finland’s Petteri Orpo warned.
Poland’s prime minister Donald Tusk, whose election at the head of a new pro-EU government in Warsaw has changed the balance of power in the EU by depriving Orban of a key ally, was even more frank.
“There is no problem with so-called Ukraine fatigue here in Brussels. We have Orban fatigue,” he said.
Almost as soon as the 27 leaders had gathered, the announcement came that it had all been resolved.
Ukraine’s funding had been approved unanimously, with Hungary on board. Mr Orban had “folded”, in one official’s words.
The leaders’ agreement was tweaked to get his agreement, by introducing annual reporting on how funding for Ukraine is being implemented, a leaders’ debate, and a potential review in two years’ time.
However this time, Mr Orban appeared to come away with very little but the ire of his fellow leaders for having made them travel to Brussels for a summit that was over before it began.