CENUSA: The Hungarian-Russian factor and the Ukrainian dimension of the EU's eastern enlargement

CENUSA: The Hungarian-Russian factor and the Ukrainian dimension of the EU's eastern enlargement
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelinskiy (left) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (right). Orban sees Ukraine's accession as a clear risk to Hungary's ability to exploit the EU's unanimity principle. / bne IntelliNews
By Denis Cenusa in Giessen January 2, 2024

The decision of the European Council to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova highlighted the political determination of Brussels to facilitate the political-technical processes that allow enlargement towards the East, despite the negative ramifications produced by the Hungarian-Russian factor. The geopolitical obstacle of Viktor Orban was neutralised by the de facto "acquisition" of Hungary's veto by unlocking €10 billion of European funds. Thus, although with serious reputational costs, the European Union (EU) managed to overcome a political confrontation with Orban that would affect the image of Ukraine and, indirectly, pro-Ukrainian solidarity.

Faced with protests by truckdrivers and farmers in Poland, Slovakia and Hungary in the last months of 2023, the Ukrainian authorities avoided a confrontation with Eurosceptic nationalists at the European level over accession negotiations. Nevertheless, Orban has become a kind of symbol of the resistance of the nationalist forces of the member states against the supranational elites, embodied by the EU institutions and the national elites united around Brussels. Furthermore, the technical unanimity achieved with Orban's physical absence from the voting process created an opportunity that will be difficult to repeat.

Although Hungary's veto has been overridden for the moment, Orban's strategic intention is to act as a brake against any accelerated accession of Ukraine to the EU. Even if Hungary's voting right were to be temporarily deactivated within the European Council (Article 7 of the EU Treaty), Budapest is willing to use even national levers (ratification, etc.) to block Ukraine.

The year 2024 will partly determine the dynamics of the EU enlargement processes. The likelihood of a rise of Eurosceptic forces in the European legislature as a result of the summer 2024 elections is lower for now. Polls indicate that the European People’s Party and social democrats could continue to dominate the European Parliament. The European political constellation will remain unchanged if the continent’s problems – migration or the cost of living crisis – remain at their current proportions.

At the same time, almost two years after the beginning of Russian aggression against Ukraine, the issue of conventional security could mobilise voters' attention less strongly. Generally speaking, focused as they are on domestic issues and accustomed to security crises in the immediate vicinity, politicians in the capitals of EU states may feel the need to de-Ukrainise the national political discourse.

At the same time, entering the technical dimension of negotiations in 35 areas will channel the attention of Ukraine and the European institutions towards reforms, where concrete results are needed to move forward. Without success in reform, it will be more difficult for Ukraine to retain European support and accumulate financial assistance to match the country's reform and reconstruction needs. However, the availability of financial resources for Ukraine's European integration will depend on the course of the war and the costs it will generate for member states and the EU.

Orban's Euroscepticism and the anti-Ukrainian opposition

The extortion of European funds in exchange for supporting the Ukrainian file is an illustration of the fact that Eurosceptics within the EU are learning new methods to promote their interests at the expense of the geopolitical calculations of the EU and the majority of member states. It was the first conclusive case in which Ukraine became a bargaining chip in agreements between Eurosceptics and Brussels. If this precedent becomes common practice, then there is a risk of politicising the EU enlargement process for national (micro) political purposes.

In addition to extracting financial benefits, Orban's actions denote a preparation for future opposition to internal reforms in the EU essential to make enlargement possible. Once the EU grows to 35 member states, the decision-making process will need to be simplified. Therefore, the need for qualified majority voting increases, which should replace the principle of unanimity to avoid blockages in the functioning of the EU.

For this reason, Orban's actions can also be interpreted through the lens of resistance against internal reforms and the eventual nullification of the principle of unanimity in decision-making at the European level. Orban's attitude is driven by the perception that, unlike the rest of the European candidates, Ukraine requires a review of the modus operandi under which the EU currently functions. This is a consequence of the size of its population, the specific characteristics of the economy, and the continued need for financial resources for (post-)war reparation until a permanent peace formula is found. Orban sees Ukraine's accession as a clear risk to Hungary's ability to exploit the unanimity principle.

The anti-Ukrainian opposition currently expressed by Orban and potentially in the future by other national leaders (for example, after the 2027 French presidential elections, Marine Le Pen) points to the likelihood of a slow enlargement of the EU towards the east. The quality of internal reforms and effective approximation to European legislation could become Ukraine's main counter-arguments to take tangible steps towards member state status.

If the Ukrainian file is immobilised due to internal syncope (failed reforms) or external obstacles (anti-Ukrainian Euroscepticism), then the other members of the eastern enlargement package – Moldova and Georgia – could be negatively affected regardless of their internal progress. Ukraine's allies within the EU may then try to condition the accession of other Eastern European states on support for the Ukrainian cause.

Russia: accelerator and irritant of European integration in the eastern neighbourhood of the EU

Managing the insecurity produced by Russia's military aggression is a good part of European leaders' reasoning for starting accession negotiations with Ukraine as soon as possible. Firstly, Brussels understands the motivational component of the start of accession negotiations for the mood of the Ukrainian population and army, which are immersed in a defensive war against Russian forces.

The second central aspect refers to the fact that once anchored in the accession process, regardless of the speed of the transformations, the Ukrainian state can be helped to stabilise through reforms and countering systemic corruption. Furthermore, the accession negotiations provide a clear direction for the development of a country that has no other alternative for the Ukrainian political class and citizens. The European orientation is the opposite of the grey zone that, due to the consequences of the Russian war, may yet crystallise, especially if a forced peace is imposed on Ukraine.

The third and final consideration that matters is the importance of the accession negotiations for the democratisation and Europeanisation of Ukraine. Since holding elections in Ukraine is a practically impossible task in 2024 for security reasons, the opening of accession negotiations makes it possible to establish a mechanism for monitoring the actions of Ukrainian institutions. The media and civil society gain new levers through which they can monitor the behaviour of Ukrainian rulers and, respectively, alert EU institutions about any deviation from European commitments.

Both during the war and after, the Russian factor will represent one of the unwanted stimulators of European integration in Eastern Europe. For now, strengthening state institutions in terms of security is among the priorities, above structural reforms of a political-economic nature.

The main challenge for the European and Ukrainian structures lies in the need to ensure a functional balance between military security emergencies or the fight against Russia, on the one hand, and the priorities of reforming and creating a European-style welfare state, for the other. It is precisely on this dilemma that Moscow counts, and it uses war as a tool to exhaust and disorient Ukraine.

Basically, the Russian factor can have a double effect on the EU's eastward enlargement. On the one hand, the EU and the new candidate states use strictly geostrategic rationales to mobilise institutions and populations in the neighborhood to embrace greater European integration. Thus, the European vector is designed as a guarantee of security, while joining Nato is impossible. Security is the predominant logic and European integration is becoming a policy aimed at eliminating Russia's influence in the region.

On the other hand, the same Russian factor distorts the allocation of Ukraine's limited resources for non-military expenditures. The militarisation and securitisation of the economies and societies of the EU's eastern neighbourhood undermines the role of democratic norms, including the rule of law, which are sacrificed to ensure public order and overall national security.

Therefore, even if Russia has become the main driver of EU enlargement, the Russian factor remains a major irritant for the future progress of the accession process of Ukraine and other candidate states, especially in combination with Orban's Euroscepticism.


The year 2023 produced a significant leap for the EU's enlargement agenda towards the former Soviet space, but the result obtained will require consolidation both on the battlefield and in the field of reforms within the EU, but even more so in the new candidate states.

The Hungarian-Russian factor, combined and separately, entails risks to the sustainability of the enlargement process of the European project. This factor is capable of dispersing the attention and limited resources necessary to facilitate the European integration of Ukraine and, through it, also the Europeanisation of Eastern Europe. Finally, managing Hungarian Euroscepticism and irritants produced by Russia will be imperative for Brussels and EU states to make Ukraine's accession a reality.

Denis Cenusa is an Associate Expert at Think-Tank EESC in Lithuania and Moldova, and a PhD candidate at Justus-Liebig-Universität in Germany. He tweets @DionisCenusa.