Orban raises stakes on Ukraine's EU accession ahead of summit

Orban raises stakes on Ukraine's EU accession ahead of summit
French President Emmanual Macron (left) has invited Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (right) to Paris this weekend for talks on Ukraine's EU accession. / bne IntelliNews
By Tamas Csonka in Budapest December 5, 2023

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is trying to grab centre stage at the EU summit next week by threatening to veto the launch of accession talks with Ukraine, as recommended by the European Commission last month.

He has written two letters to European Council President Charles Michel calling for a "strategic debate" on Ukrainian accession, prompting Michel to visit Budapest last week.

In the letters addressed to Michel, Orban in effect threatened to block additional financial support to the war-torn country as well as the start of accession talks. Orban also opposes a planned round of new sanctions against Russia.

“I still believe the European Council is not in a position to take key decisions unless a consensus on our future strategy toward Ukraine is found,” Orban wrote in his second letter to Michel.

Orban has called the European Commission recommendation on opening accession talks – once certain reforms are passed – “unfounded and poorly prepared”. "There is no place for it on the agenda," the Hungarian premier wrote on his X account on December 3.

All EU countries must agree to open accession talks with candidate countries, giving Orban an effective veto on Ukrainian membership. The EU is taking his threats seriously and is reportedly looking at a "plan B" to circumvent a possible veto.

French President Emmanuel Macron has now invited the 60-year-old radical right-wing strongman to the Élysée Palace in Paris this weekend to try to strike a compromise over Ukraine ahead of the December 14-15 meeting of EU leaders.

There is a lot at stake, as the start of accession talks would represent a major step forward for Ukraine's integration into the European Union, while a rejection would deal a significant blow to the country's morale amidst the ongoing war with Russia, particularly given the hold up in the US Congress to further US aid. It could potentially fuel internal divisions and undermine the push for reforms, analysts say.

Orban has been a vocal critic of Ukraine's bid for EU membership for both political and economic reasons.

The Hungarian leader has cultivated close ties with Russia, claiming that this is necessary to ensure his country’s energy supplies. As part of this, he has been an opponent of further EU sanctions against Moscow and called for peace talks now.

He has also questioned Ukraine’s bid to join Nato and blocked ratification of Sweden's Nato membership on the pretext of Swedish domestic criticism of the hollowing out of Hungarian democracy.

He is suspected of using all these issues as leverage to win the release of €9.5bn of RRF funds and €22bn of cohesion funds suspended over his abuse of the rule of law in Hungary.

Nevertheless, many states have reservations about Ukrainian accession and may be quietly happy that Orban – whatever his real motives – is raising the issue.

Orban has repeatedly argued that Ukraine is not yet ready to meet the requirements for EU membership, citing issues such as corruption, rule of law, and economic stability. He has also expressed concerns about the potential costs of Ukraine's accession, both in terms of financial assistance and the burden on EU institutions.

For Hungary itself, he has suggested that Ukraine's EU membership could have a negative impact, particularly in terms of its economic competitiveness and its ability to receive EU funding. He has warned that Ukraine's accession could lead to a shift in the balance of power within the EU, which he sees as potentially detrimental to Hungary's position.

The Hungarian government's trump card in the debate is the treatment of ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine. He has demanded Ukraine improve their language rights as a precondition for opening any talks.

Ukraine's 2017 education law requires Ukrainian schools to conduct at least 70% of their lessons in Ukrainian starting from the fifth grade (age 10), which Hungary claims infringes on the rights of ethnic Hungarians to education in their native language. Pressure from Hungary has been the main reason that the 2017 Ukrainian educational law has had its date of implementation pushed back to 2024.

A subsequent 2019 law entitled "On protecting the functioning of the Ukrainian language as the state language" has also faced criticism from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, similar to the first language law. This legislation mandated the use of Ukrainian in various sectors, including public bodies, education, mass media, and hospitals, among other state-funded institutions.

Orban has used this issue as a political tool to advance his agenda and to win over nationalist extremists, many of whom would welcome the annexation of the Transcarpathian region, once part of Hungary before the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. The Hungarian leader has successfully played on nationalist sentiment for years, reinforced by granting citizenship to over 1mn ethnic Hungarians living in neighbouring countries.

Russia may have been involved in stoking tensions with Ukraine as well. The cultural centre of the largest Hungarian cultural organization in Ukraine (KMKSZ) was burned down in February 2018. Two years later, a Polish court sentenced a local man with close ties to the far-right pro-Russian party Zmiana, who hired two Polish men with connections to a neo-Nazi organization whose members fought alongside pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Hungary's 444.hu reported.

Ukraine has been resisting calls to enshrine protections for minority groups and languages, despite demands from the European Union that Ukraine must address the recommendations of the Venice Commission on the law on minorities, in particular on the use of minority languages in public life, administration, media, and books The situation is complicated because by far the biggest minority are Russian-speakers, whose mother country is currently attacking Ukraine.

According to the EU’s latest report, Ukraine has made some progress towards improving the rights of minorities, but it should still “enact a law addressing the remaining Venice Commission recommendations… linked to the laws on State language, media and education.”

In an interview with Ukrainska Pravda on November 22, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration Olha Stefanishyna revealed that Kyiv would refuse to make "special exceptions" for the country’s Hungarian minority, despite regular “noise” made by Budapest.

Stefanishyna’s comment came just two weeks after she told journalists that Russian would not get protection, claiming that there is “no Russian minority in Ukraine”.

“There is not a single legally formalised community that identifies itself as a Russian minority. There are Ukrainian citizens who speak Russian. I am a resident of Odesa: I speak Russian if I want to, and I don't speak Russian if I don't want to," Stefanishyna said.