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Issues Swirl Around Education, EU Accession, and Funding

Ukraine Crisis

Viktor Orbán, one of the vice presidents of the Christian Democratic International, talks with Yulia Tymoshenko (left), former Prime Minister of Ukraine, and Hrihoriy Nemiria (center), vice chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Ukrainian Parliament, during a board meeting of CDI in Brussels on Nov. 14.

Photo by Zoltán Fischer / Prime Minister’s Press Office / MTI

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has said he would oppose European Union efforts to continue providing financial support for Ukraine when the bloc is expected to vote on a EUR 50 billion package. It would help the beleaguered country pay salaries and meet other expenses needed to maintain its repulsion of Russia’s invasion, at a summit in Brussels on Dec. 14-15.

“Hungary hasn’t supported the sending of weapons, and I also don’t support sending Hungarian taxpayer money to Ukraine,” Orbán told Kossuth Rádió on Nov. 10.

At the summit, the EU may also decide whether to release funds for Hungary, hitherto frozen due to concerns over the government’s adherence to the rule of law. This has led to speculation Orbán might leverage his veto power to get the EU to resume payments he says are owed to Hungary. However, that claim has been denied by both Brussels and Budapest.

According to a report from Bloomberg News, if Hungary proceeds to block the expansion of the EU budget to support Ukraine, which requires unanimity from all 27 member states, officials may try to get national guarantees to raise funding in the markets.

“Of course, you can make things more complicated, more cumbersome if you need unanimity, but we have seen in the past, being crystal clear, that you cannot stop us doing things,” EU Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn told lawmakers on Nov. 7. A pair of EU officials told international news wire Reuters that the bloc could request participating member states establish bilateral aid packages with Ukraine.

“We’d prefer to have them on board, but there comes a point when people get fed up with Budapest holding everyone hostage,” one EU official said. “The workaround is tiresome, but we have it if need be.”

No Bargaining

During his Nov. 10 interview with Kossuth Rádió, Orbán repeated that he opposed starting talks with Ukraine over EU membership. On Nov. 8, the European Commission recommended opening accession negotiations with Ukraine once it had satisfied several remaining conditions. These include the issue being pressed by Hungary of safeguards for national minorities.

In 2017, Ukraine passed an education law, due to come into full effect in September 2024, which requires minorities receive at least 70% of their education in the Ukrainian language. Hungarian officials claim this infringes on the rights of 150,000 ethnic Hungarians.

“The new laws have made the life of Hungarians in Ukraine unbearable,” said Balázs Orbán, political director to the prime minister, adding that Budapest would block the start of negotiations on Ukraine joining the EU “until the problem is solved.”

However, according to Olga Stefanishyna, the Ukrainian minister overseeing her country’s EU integration, the Hungarian minority has been adequately protected, and the issue is overblown.

“Any country that makes a conscious political decision, first and foremost, to block the decision regarding Ukraine will find a reason (to do so),” she said. “We understand that there is such a statement, but we also understand there is a dialogue with Budapest.” She underscored that Ukrainian and Hungarian officials were working together on legislative changes recommended by Brussels.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of November 17, 2023.

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