Orbán's Defeat or Victory for Ukraine. Why Is EU Summit Historic?

Friday, 15 December 2023 — European Pravda, from Brussels
Credit: Omar Havana/Associated Press/East News
It looks that agreements with Hungary are becoming inevitable. At this EU summit, Orban lost the battle against Ukraine, but he is already calculating the opportunities for a revenge

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had been widely expected to arrive in Brussels on Thursday morning. This had been openly discussed by political leaders, including Poland's new Prime Minister, Donald Tusk,  mysteriously announced, "Perhaps the meeting [with Zelenskyy] will take place tomorrow morning."

Zelenskyy himself was also looking forward to the meeting and had travelled to Norway for that very purpose the day before. He needed somewhere to spend a day after his visit to the United States, which ended on Tuesday. He stayed in Norway overnight and was all set to head to Brussels early in the morning as soon as he had received confirmation from the President of the European Council, Charles Michel.

Even though no invitation from Brussels arrived, the Ukrainian leader remained prepared.

Zelenskyy joined the EU summit online, sitting in a room at a Norwegian airport. In an emotional address, he warned EU leaders that their indecision would be a victory for Putin. Instead of returning to Ukraine, the President headed to Frankfurt on an unplanned and entirely optional visit, just to be near Belgium so that he could be there within an hour if Charles Michel invited him for talks at some point.

The stakes at the summit were so high that all his other tasks had to be put on the back burner.

The summit unexpectedly brought Ukraine an unconditional victory. The EU had been prepared to make concessions to Hungary, but they didn’t have to: after a closed-door conversation with Scholz and Macron and a brief discussion in the assembly hall, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán suddenly abandoned his threats. He allowed his counterparts to bypass the Hungarian veto and essentially agreed to the opening of EU accession negotiations for Ukraine and Moldova.

How They "Broke" Orbán

"There are no grounds to negotiate Ukraine's membership," the Prime Minister of Hungary repeated several times at the entrance to the European Council building, where journalists had gathered on Thursday morning in anticipation of the European Council meeting.

He was about to go in for a meeting, or rather a working breakfast, with the German and French leaders, Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron, as well as two top EU officials, Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen. The EU’s four most influential leaders had invited Orbán at the last moment to try to convince him to change his position on Ukraine without any unnecessary witnesses.

The top diplomats involved in arranging this conversation had, however, been sceptical about its success the day before.

After all, Orbán had done literally everything he could to rule out the possibility of a turnaround

and "cement" his intention to veto the decision on Ukraine's EU accession negotiations. A few days before the summit, he had publicly and repeatedly promised to veto Ukraine.

Orbán publicly refused to consider the arguments put forward by ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine, who said Ukraine had fulfilled all its commitments regarding language legislation. This has served as a pretext for his attacks on Ukraine for many years.

On the day of his departure to Brussels, Orbán convened a session of the Hungarian parliament in which he explained to MPs in detail, with numbers and presentations, that the opening of EU accession negotiations with Ukraine would be an unconditional disaster for Hungary, and that he was therefore obliged to veto it.

The Hungarian Prime Minister’s actions no longer looked like "bargaining".

While Orbán was breakfasting with the European Quartet, other Western leaders and diplomats were considering what to do with the seemingly unbreakable Hungarian veto. Some even shared alternative scenarios with journalists, each of which would involve Ukraine's practical path to membership being delayed and the window of opportunity closing. But even countries friendly to Kyiv were ready to say "yes" to these alternatives if it turned out that Orbán would not compromise.

But the Hungarian leader surprised everyone again.

Orbán simply left the room during the EU enlargement vote. It has been claimed that Olaf Scholz (yes, the Olaf Scholz Orbán had breakfast with) suggested that he "go and have a coffee" and not interfere with the others voting. The Hungarian leader immediately agreed, as if this had been prearranged.

The mechanism of "non-voting", when one or more countries consciously abstain from supporting a decision without vetoing it, is not uncommon in EU history. But it is unprecedented for a country leader to be practically shown the door at a summit so that he does not veto a decision that is unacceptable to him.

This step was undoubtedly humiliating for Orbán.

He had to come up later with some clumsy, unconvincing reasoning for the Hungarian public - that the decision was so bad that Hungary "could not participate in it", and that was why he walked out instead of vetoing the "bad" decision.

Then he had to face mocking comments from his counterparts, such as the Belgian Prime Minister advising Orbán to "keep his mouth shut" when he had already abandoned the veto.

What made Orbán betray his initial intentions? It is not known which of the arguments advanced during the meeting with the European Quartet leaders were the most convincing for Orbán. There has also been speculation that the Hungarian leader may have been influenced by calls from across the Atlantic from influential Republicans, whom Orbán treats with particular reverence. It cannot be ruled out that Viktor Orbán, who respects and fears power in international politics and practically never fights "one against all", simply caved in under pressure from the rest of the member states.

After all, he may have hoped that he would not be blocking Ukraine alone. Austria had maintained that it would not be supporting negotiations with Ukraine right up until the last day, but the Austrians withdrew their objections at the summit. Orbán had also been counting on support from Slovak leader Robert Fico, but he too supported Ukraine's move towards EU membership.

Orbán was left alone. Since he had no rational arguments against the negotiations starting, Orbán had essentially lost this battle.

Delayed 50 Billion

Finally, sources in Brussels are confident that the vote for Ukraine was not "Orbán's payment" for unlocking €10 billion in euro funds for Hungary. It wasn’t about money this time, or at least it was not such an obvious "deal".

However, the question of money is worth a separate discussion.

After the issue of accession negotiations with Ukraine was resolved, the summit moved on to financial matters. Reaching an agreement here has proved to be more challenging.

The discussion went on until deep into the night. The leaders only began to disperse at around 3 am, without having achieved the desired result. Orbán vetoed a large package of financial decisions, including financial assistance to Ukraine.

The money in question is from the four-year €50 billion Ukraine Facility to cover the budget deficit and assist Ukraine in funding its armed forces.

From this description, as well as from the headlines, the fact that Orbán has vetoed a decision that would enable Ukraine’s armed forces to maintain their capability might look like a disaster. That isn’t the case! The Hungarian veto is unwelcome, but it will not be too painful for Ukraine this time.

Orbán's veto is likely to be overridden in early January.

The EU has mechanisms to do this.

The key agreement that the leaders reached at the overnight summit is the decision to convene a new emergency EU summit in early January focusing exclusively on this financial package. European government leaders are already openly saying that they are virtually certain Orbán will give in.

Firstly, a decision on EU financial matters can be made even without Hungary’s vote. It will be procedurally imperfect, but still legitimate. The EU is prepared for this, and the President of the European Council has openly stated as much. The decision to provide funding for Ukraine is already there. The only question is how to formalise it.

Secondly, according to rumours, the unfreezing of the €10 billion for Hungary was specifically aimed at obtaining the Hungarian vote for money for Ukraine. Orbán is highly likely to approve the allocation of funding in January. Since the summit, he has stopped denying the possibility of assistance to Ukraine.

So why use his veto now? Orbán could not return from Brussels without having achieved at least some "victory", however fake. He had failed to keep his public pledge to block Ukraine's progress toward the EU; he had not blocked the new 12th sanctions package; he had supported the decision to start developing a new package of sanctions. He had to veto something related to Ukraine.

But the systemic problem of the Hungarian veto has not gone away.

75 Shades of Orbán

The EU's decision to open negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova is a political step of the utmost importance. It was adopted in its initial form, without any concessions compared to what the European Commission proposed. The European Commission can now begin technical preparations for the negotiations in December. In March 2024, according to the just-adopted summit decision, Ukraine expects to hold an intergovernmental conference – the body that will approve the negotiating framework and make other technical decisions. No other candidate country in the history of EU enlargement has moved ahead at such an unprecedented speed.

Simply put, it could even be said that we have passed the political point of no return on the path to membership. Now, providing that Ukraine implements the necessary reforms and adheres to EU law, it should be granted membership. The only question is when that will happen.

In practice, however, Hungary retains the ability to throw a spanner in the works on an almost daily basis.

The accession process is structured in such a way that even intermediate technical decisions – not to mention major ones like the intergovernmental conference on the negotiating framework – must be adopted unanimously.

Orbán has already calculated that they can stop Ukraine 75 more times if necessary. Kyiv needs to be aware of this.

That means negotiating with Orbán. Journalists or experts can speak about Hungary’s authoritarian leader and the undemocratic government in Budapest in the terms they deserve, but the Ukrainian government does not have this privilege. Moreover, Kyiv now has to avoid a mistake that would be very easy to make: having achieved an unconditional victory at the summit, Zelenskyy's team may shelve the Hungarian issue as "no longer urgent" and "temporarily resolved". And that is far from being the case.

Now is the time to try to push for negotiations between the leaders of Ukraine and Hungary. To show that we did not set out to humiliate Orbán in Brussels but, on the contrary, are open to dialogue. To try to reach an agreement and establish contact with Budapest. Because sooner or later, this path will have to be taken. Ukraine’s future EU accession, which has become a reality, offers no other option.

By Sergiy Sydorenko, 

Editor, European Pravda, from Brussels

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