Putin’s antechamber

, by Sina Behrend

Putin's antechamber
By Tibury, under pixabay license terms

Has Orbán successfully blackmailed the EU? Last week, it was decided to start accession talks with Ukraine - but it has cost the EU a lot to get this far: Money, and possibly also its credibility.

Ukraine and the EU- talking membership

As early as mid-2022, the European Union drew up a list of seven reform points that Ukraine should implement within ten years to become a member of the Union. The EU paid particular attention to corruption and constitutional jurisdiction, with greater decentralization also being an important and necessary reform step.

In autumn 2023, the EU Commission came to the conclusion that Ukraine had already fulfilled over 90 percent of the requirements in just over a year. At the EU summit on 14 December, the European Council decided to initiate accession talks with Ukraine (and the Republic of Moldova). However, this does not mean that the EU will actually be enlarged to include these countries in the coming weeks, with accession processes often taking years. Further reforms are expected before Ukraine’s accession, particularly with regard to corruption and the protection of minorities. In addition, the EU itself wants to adapt its agricultural policy and speed up its decision-making mechanisms in order to remain capable of acting even with more members. The vote nevertheless undoubtedly marks a historic moment: the EU is entering into negotiations with a country that is involved in a full-scale war.

Orbán - between Putin’s influence and EU’s money

According to EU regulations, votes on the opening of accession negotiations must be decided unanimously by the European Council . Viktor Orbán, who has been Prime Minister of Hungary since 2010 and leads the Fidesz party, can be seen as the most pro-Russian leader in the EU. The decision regardingUkraine accession was overshadowed by the threat of a veto from Orbán- as of course Putin does not want Ukraine to be part of the strong and democratic EU. The Hungarian head of state had declared in the run-up to the vote that he would not vote in favor of Ukraine’s accession - and he did not. How did the EU still come to a unanimous result? Orbán left the room before the vote. Interestingly, in the same week, it was decided to release 10 billion euros of previously frozen EU funds to Hungary. The funds had been withheld due to many shortcomings in the democratic processes and the rule of law in Hungary. There can be no talk of improvement in these areas. Therefore some argue that the commission has released the funds in order to prevent Orbán’s veto.

The EU has thus set a dangerous precedent which shows that blackmail can be effective. And what were the immediate consequences? Orbán blocked the disbursement of further funds to Ukraine through his voting behavior. In order for him to change his decision, he demanded the release of all frozen EU funds earmarked for Hungary.

How to overcome blackmail

Ukraine urgently needs further financial support, especially with a second winter of war looming and costs rising inexorably. But the EU does not want to continue to be directed by Orbán in this way. But perhaps there is an alternative. Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty gives the EU the power to revoke the voting rights of a country like Hungary. The defeat of the Polish Law and Justice party has further isolated Hungary’s prime minister. Although this route is complicated, it could actually be used given Hungary’s isolation. Undertaking this could be a strategic option to stop this blackmail tactic and at the same time send a clear signal in favour of upholding the principles and values of the EU. Another conceivable scenario is that the procedures for faster decision-making are introduced soon. The unanimity principle would then be abolished or weakened, and a single country veto would no longer be possible.

The beginning of the EU accession talks with Ukraine mark an important step. The country is on it’s way of becoming a member state of a strong Union, sending a clear signal to Russia. After probably being blackmailed by Orbán to get to this decision, it also marks an important moment for the EU. Hopefully, the EU has recognised the weaknesses of the unanimity principle and will find new solutions in the future.

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