The European Union decided Thursday to open accession negotiations with Ukraine, a stunning reversal for a country at war that had struggled to find the necessary backing for its membership aspirations and long faced obstinate opposition from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
European Council President Charles Michel, who was chairing a Brussels summit of the EU’s 27 leaders where the decision was made, called it “a clear signal of hope for their people and our continent.”
Although the process between opening negotiations and Ukraine finally becoming a member could take many years, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the agreement as “a victory for Ukraine. A victory for all of Europe.”
“History is made by those who don’t get tired of fighting for freedom,” Zelenskyy said.
Orban said his opposition remained steadfast, but, with a unanimous decision required, he decided to let his right to oppose lapse because the 26 others were arguing so strongly in favor. An abstention from him was not enough to stop the decision from being adopted.
An EU official, who asked not to be identified because the summit negotiations were private, said Orban was “momentarily absent from the room in a pre-agreed and constructive manner” when the decision was made.
“Hungary’s perspective is clear: Ukraine is not ready for us to begin negotiations on its EU membership. It’s a completely illogical, irrational and improper decision,” Hungary’s prime minister said.
Orban said he stepped aside since all of his counterparts were committed to putting Ukraine on the EU membership path.
“Hungary doesn’t want to share in this bad decision, which is why Hungary abstained from today’s decision,” Orban said.
Others lauded Orban’s gesture; they were preparing for a summit that some feared might spill over into an extra day Saturday.
“Certainly quicker than any of us expected,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said.
“In fairness to Prime Minister Orban, he made his case, made it very strongly. He disagrees with this decision and he’s not changing his opinion in that sense, but essentially decided not to use the veto power,” Varadkar said.
“I have to say, I respect the fact that he he didn’t do that, because it would have put us in a very difficult position as a European Union,” the Irish leader added.
Left on the summit agenda now is a promise to give Ukraine the money and wherewithal to stave off Russia’s invasion, another agenda item held up by Orban.
The Hungarian leader came into the summit vowing to both block the plans by his 26 fellow leaders to officially declare that membership negotiations with Ukraine can start, and more pressingly, deny Kyiv the equivalent of $54 billion in financial aid that the country desperately needs to stay afloat.
“The European Union is about to make a terrible mistake and they must be stopped – even if 26 of them want to do it, and we are the only ones against it,” Orban said in comments released by his office Thursday. “This is a mistake, we are destroying the European Union.”
EU leaders had expected the summit to take at least until late Friday before any sort of breakthrough might be clinched, so the fateful announcement came totally unexpectedly after Orban did not block the move by his colleagues.
A beaming Michel came down in the summit media room unscheduled and said “This is a historic moment, and it shows the credibility of the European Union. The strength of the European Union. The decision is made.”
He said the negotiations would open before a report will be made to the leaders in March.
“It was important that no member state would oppose this decision,” said Michel, adding he was confident a consensus could be found on the financial aid.
The surprise came at an dire time for Zelenskyy, straight off a trip to Washington where his pleas for more aid from the U.S. Congress fell on deaf ears.
The urgency to find a solution is matched only by the potential blow to the EU’s credibility, the Ukrainian president said in a video address to the leaders assembled in Brussels.
“Nobody wants Europe to be seen as untrustworthy. Or as unable to take decisions it prepared itself,” he said.
Referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, he added, “Don’t give him this first – and only – victory of the year. Europe must win, agreements must be honored.”
“Whatever it takes” had been the relentless mantra of the EU in pledging its support, leaders dressed up in the yellow and sky-blue colors of Ukraine, and countless speeches ending with the rallying cry “Slava Ukraini!” – “Glory to Ukraine!”
And again, against the odds, the EU prevailed.
The EU, a group of 27 nations which still cherish their independence on strategic and foreign affairs issues, works by unanimity on most issues relating to Ukraine. Orban was seen by many as Putin’s foot in the summit door to demolish the bloc’s support for Zelenskyy and his country.
Orban has complained of corruption in Ukraine and demanded a “strategic discussion” on the country’s future in Europe as the war with Russia bogs down and concerns mount about what kind of administration might emerge in Washington after the U.S. elections in a year.
The Hungarian leader has been at odds with his fellow EU leaders for years, ranging from fights over COVID-19 recovery money to his declining respect for the Western democratic principles that are the essence of the EU. Yet as the longest-serving EU leader, he knows how to play the summit room like few others and has been able to extract financial concessions time and again to shore up his struggling economy.
The EU relented on Wednesday and granted Hungary access to over $11 billion in funds that had been frozen by the European Commission out of concern that democratic backsliding by Orban could put the bloc’s principles at risk. The Commission said it did so after Budapest had made the necessary concessions on the rule of law principle and denied it was a bargaining chip.