EU opens Ukraine membership talks, bypassing Hungary in historic first

Bloc's leaders also agreed to accession talks with Moldova and to grant Georgia candidate status

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks at the Nordic Summit in Oslo on December 13. AP
Powered by automated translation

The EU on Thursday made a historic decision to open membership talks with Ukraine but they could not agree on a €50 billion package of financial aid for Kyiv due to opposition from Hungary.

At a summit in Brussels, other leaders bypassed objections from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban by getting him to leave the room while they took the historic step of agreeing to start accession negotiations with a country at war.

But they could not overcome resistance from Mr Orban, who maintains close ties to Russia, to a revamp of the bloc's budget to channel vital financial support to Ukraine and provide more cash for other EU priorities such as managing migration.

They ended talks on the financial package, which requires unanimity on the part of the 27 EU leaders, in the early hours of Friday morning and said they would try again in January, with some voicing optimism a deal could be clinched then.

Officials said leaders of 26 of the EU's 27 member countries were satisfied with a compromise budget proposal put forward by summit chairman Charles Michel.

“We still have some time; Ukraine is not out of money in the next few weeks,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters on leaving the talks. “I am fairly confident we can get a deal early next year, we are thinking of late January.”

Mr Orban has argued Ukraine should not get such large amounts of money from the EU budget as it is not part of the bloc. Other leaders have assured Kyiv that they will channel aid to Ukraine outside the EU budget if Budapest maintains its blockade.

The news on the financing struck a bittersweet note for Ukraine, coming just hours after leaders agreed to open membership talks.

Although membership would likely be many years away, the decision at a summit in Brussels takes Ukraine a step closer to its long-term strategic goal of anchoring itself in the West and liberating itself from Moscow's orbit.

The move came at a critical time for Ukraine, after its counteroffensive against Russian forces has failed to make major gains and with US President Joe Biden so far unable to get a $60 billion package for Kyiv through the US Congress.

“This is a victory for Ukraine. A victory for all of Europe. A victory that motivates, inspires and strengthens,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“I congratulate every Ukrainian on this day … History is made by those who don't get tired of fighting for freedom.”

Mr Zelenskyy thanked German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for playing a key role in getting Mr Orban to leave the room to clear the way for a decision.

“Germany's support for Ukraine is growing by the day. We see it and will always remember it,” Mr Zelenskyy said.

Mr Scholz said the decision was “a strong sign of support” for Ukraine.

The leaders also agreed to accession talks with another former Soviet republic, Moldova, and to grant another, Georgia, the status of membership candidate.

“It is clear that these countries belong to the European family,” Mr Scholz said on social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

The leaders said they would also start membership talks with Bosnia when it has made political reforms.

Frustration with Hungary

Mr Orban had cited corruption and other issues in arguing Ukraine was not ready for EU talks but the bloc's diplomats suspected he was using the issue as a bargaining chip to try to unlock EU funds frozen over concerns about the rule of law in Hungary.

On Wednesday, the European Commission – the EU's executive body – restored Hungary's access to up to €10.2 billion in refunds for economic projects after finding it had fulfilled conditions on the independence of its judiciary.

Mr Orban stood by his objections to membership talks for Ukraine even after the decision was taken.

“Hungary's stance is clear: Ukraine is not prepared for us to start talks on EU membership,” he said, calling the decision to start talks “irrational” and “inappropriate”.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, reflecting frustration with Mr Orban, said it was time for the Hungarian to pipe down.

“If you are part of the decision, you agree with the decision, or afterwards you just have to keep your mouth shut,” he said.

Membership talks will not start immediately.

First, the EU will have to agree to a negotiating framework for the talks, which will require another unanimous decision.

The leaders said they would take this step when Ukraine met outstanding requirements on democracy and the rule of law.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy declares EU's move to grant Ukraine candidate status a victory - video

Volodymyr Zelenskyy declares EU's move to grant Ukraine candidate status a victory

Volodymyr Zelenskyy declares EU's move to grant Ukraine candidate status a victory

EU agrees to new round of sanctions against Russia

EU leaders on Thursday agreed to impose a 12th round of sanctions against Russia over the war on Ukraine, hitting diamond exports and better enforcing an oil price cap.

The 27 leaders said in a statement issued during their summit in Brussels that they welcomed the approval of the new sanctions on Moscow.

The EU has imposed an unprecedented battery of penalties against Russia since Mr Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The latest sanctions, which still have to be formally published, are set to ban Russia's lucrative diamond exports.

They also include measures aimed at tightening enforcement of an oil price cap to curb the amount of revenue the Kremlin makes from crude sales to non-EU countries.

European diplomats warn the EU is running out of further sectors it can agree on imposing sanctions on.

Russia's economy has so far weathered the West's punishment and Mr Putin boasted on Thursday that the country could “move forward”.

Updated: December 15, 2023, 8:49 AM