The European Union’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty is “ unwavering ”. She will continue to provide the country with all help “as long as it is necessary”. These sentences have been in every European Council final declaration for a long time and have never been controversial. But at the end of this week they could sound hollow and cynical because a different signal could come from Brussels: Europe is slamming the door in Kiev's face and will no longer provide aid, neither for weapons nor for reconstruction. For Vladimir Putin it would be the best Christmas present.
It is still uncertain whether this will actually happen. The heads of state and government have often pulled together at the last minute. And Victor Orbán has often caved in, although rarely without anything in return. This time the Hungarian Prime Minister doesn't seem to be interested in money, at least when it comes to his resistance to opening accession talks with Ukraine. This is a “historical” and not a “tactical question”, he explained to the magazine “Le Point”. In the long conversation he also gives reasons, but they are not convincing.
On the one hand, he argues that Ukraine has far from fulfilled the reform requirements. In doing so, he contradicts Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi, whom he himself placed in Brussels and who therefore kept a keen eye on the country. Orbán also ignores the fact that Kiev passed three of the four outstanding legislative changes at the end of last week, in particular a law on minority protection that Budapest had pushed for.
There is no doubt that Ukraine is facing a profound transformation on the way to the Union. But it is not even in the Transparency International index, “one of the most corrupt countries in the world,” as Orbán says. In fact, in these statistics it is not far from Hungary.
On the other hand, Orbán points to the “terrible consequences” if Ukraine were to become a gigantic agricultural state – namely fewer subsidies for the current members. This concern also concerns other net recipients. But the heads of government have long since agreed that new members will only be admitted once the Union has reformed its decision-making procedures and policies. This also includes agricultural subsidies. But there is no reason to make this an entry hurdle for negotiations that will take many years anyway.
The real reason
The real reason for Orbán's resistance is Moscow. No Kremlin spokesman could have phrased the passages about Russia more beautifully. A “strong” country with which one should maintain “sensible economic relations” – there is no talk of a war of aggression against Ukraine. He calls the separation from Russia an “American disease.” Orbán has served the Kremlin's interests before, for example when he prevented sanctions against oligarchs and Patriarch Kirill. In return he gets cheap oil and gas, maybe more. Putin appreciates friendships of convenience.
The EU must accept the heads of government as they are. However, she is not helpless at Orbán’s mercy. In this way, military and financial support for Kiev can also be achieved without Hungary, 26. Military aid already comes from a special pot outside the budget; Hungary could be excluded from this. Budapest isn't sending any weapons anyway, but it has been blocking this fund for months. Macro-financial assistance to Kiev – 50 billion euros over four years – could also be organized beyond the budget. In return, the EU Commission should ensure that Hungary only receives money if it meets all the requirements.
The “nuclear option”
When it comes to expansion, Budapest cannot easily be avoided. But there is one lever that the EU has never used: the Article 7 procedure, in which violations of the Union's fundamental values can not only be identified but also sanctioned, up to and including the withdrawal of voting rights. This is considered a “nuclear option” in Brussels. So far, Hungary and Poland have been able to protect each other. This is now over; Donald Tusk is expected to be Prime Minister in Brussels on Thursday. Perhaps Orbán will then find a new ally in the Slovakian left-wing populist Robert Fico, but that is not certain.
When the Council voted a year ago on sanctions against Hungary to protect the EU budget against corruption, 25 states voted in favor. Nobody had previously expected such a clear result. Government leaders should remind Orbán of this if he wants to continue playing Putin's game.