Focus on Hungary’s View on EU Membership, Funding for Ukraine

Ukraine Crisis

Zsolt Németh, Fidesz MP, speaks during the general debate on the Hungarian parliamentary resolution on the opening of negotiations on Ukraine’s accession to the European Union at the plenary session of the Hungarian Parliament on Dec. 13, 2023. Németh is well known as a Fidesz foreign affairs expert, having served as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs between 1998 and 2002 and again from 2010-2014. He chaired the Parliamentary Committee for Foreign Affairs from 2002 to 2010 and has done so again since 2014.

Photo by Szilárd Koszticsák.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky were seen having a brief but apparently heated discussion at the inauguration of Argentine President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires on Dec. 9. The pair were seen conversing for about 20 seconds amidst other guests in the Argentine parliament where the inauguration took place. Although Orbán neglected to comment on the exchange, Zelensky later said it “was as frank as possible, and obviously, it was about our European affairs.”

Zelensky traveled to Washington on Dec. 12 to try to coax further funding from the United States for his country’s war effort. U.S. President Joe Biden has struggled to get Congress to back additional support for Ukraine since September, with Senate Republicans rejecting a supplemental funding bill that included financial aid for Ukraine (and Israel) as recently as Dec. 6.

However, during a meeting with Zelensky in the Oval Office on Dec. 12, Biden announced that the Department of Defense would provide an additional USD 200 million military package for Ukraine.

Yet, as Zelensky made overtures for the United States to continue supporting his beleaguered nation, agents of Hungary have also been in Washington working against these very efforts. According to a report from the U.K.-based left-leaning daily newspaper The Guardian, Members of the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs and staff from the Hungarian Embassy in Washington participated in a two-day event hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank on Dec. 11-12.

During a closed-door meeting with Republicans, the Hungarian representatives reportedly pushed for an end to U.S. military aid for Ukraine.

Meanwhile, back on this side of the Atlantic, where it has significantly more leverage, Hungary has been steadfast about denying Ukraine any further financial support from the European Union and obstructing attempts to open accession negotiations.

Orbán has repeatedly refused to back a EUR 50 billion (USD 53.9 bln) support package for Kyiv and twice written to European Council President Charles Michel asking him to drop Ukraine membership talks from the agenda of the European Council summit on Dec. 14-15, where these decisions will come to a head.

According to Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó, EU affairs ministers failed to decide on starting accession negotiations with Ukraine at a meeting on Dec. 12, deferring it instead to the upcoming council leaders’ summit.

Hungary remains the only holdout against these decisions, which require unanimous approval, with representatives from other EU member states growing frustrated at the perceived obstruction.

“The only way I can read the Hungarian position, not just on Ukraine but on many other issues, is that they’re against Europe and everything that Europe stands for,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told reporters ahead of a meeting with his counterparts in Brussels on Dec. 11. Others, however, still hold out hope that Hungary can be persuaded to cooperate.

“Our clear aim is to convince this state that the Ukraine facility is the right instrument to show our unity and send Russia a clear signal, but also to support U.S. President Biden’s efforts to mobilize the further necessary support,” one German official said.

The Ukrainian Hungarian Democratic Alliance, representing the Hungarian minority living in Transcarpathia in Western Ukraine, published an open letter to Orbán and Michel, requesting negotiations on Ukraine’s membership in the EU be allowed to proceed.

Orbán responded by saying the Hungarian government would do “everything in its power to defend the rights of the Hungarian community in Ukraine” but said the time was not suitable for the start of accession talks.

“We will propose the European Union aim to establish a strategic partnership with Ukraine instead of a legally complicated EU membership,” Orbán replied.

Michel Calls for ‘Spirit of Compromise and Collective Responsibility’

In his invitation letter to the European Council Meeting on Dec. 14-15, published on the council website on Dec. 13, European Council President Charles Michel talked of how Feb. 24, 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, had “marked a turning point in Europe’s history.”

Since then, the council has taken several unprecedented actions, he said. “Twenty-one months on, we are faced once again with the need to take bold decisions. They require our collective strength and determination, and the audacity to make the right choices,” he wrote.

“We must provide Ukraine with continued and sustainable political, financial and military support and, in particular, come to an agreement on providing EUR 50 bln for its long-term stability. We also have to agree to open accession negotiations with Ukraine, thereby giving it a necessary signal and bringing it yet closer to our European family,” Michel insisted.

But, in what may have been a nod to Orbán’s critique of EU preparedness for expansion, he wadded there is a need to “make our Union fit for the future and ready to take on new members.”

Beyond Ukraine, agenda items will include the revision of the Multiannual Financial Framework, security (not least creating an internal market for defense), and developments in the Middle East.

“A pivotal European Council lies ahead of us. Now is the time for decision-making. I call on you all to come equipped with a spirit of compromise, a sense of collective responsibility, with the Union’s interests and values at the forefront of your minds,” Michel concluded in his letter to leaders.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of December 15, 2023.

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