Foreign ministers close ranks to slam Hungary's 'deplorable' threats to block EU support for Ukraine

Ahead of a high-stakes EU summit later this week, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has drastically ratcheted up his opposition campaign to prevent the opening of accession negotiations with the war-torn nation, derail a proposed €50-billion special fund in financial support and hinder further provisions of military aid.

All three decisions require unanimity, allowing one single country to paralyse the plans.

"We should refrain from discussing the issue of Ukraine's EU accession during the December (summit), as there is no unity among member states on this matter," Orbán said last week after a phone conversation with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

Orbán's increasingly emboldened and defiant attitude has put Brussels on alert, fuelling fears that the political unity forged in the aftermath of Russia's invasion might be about to collapse, just when American support is deeply stuck in a legislative battle.

In a bid to twist Hungary's arm and avoid what is shaping to be a calamitous summit, foreign affairs ministers barely minced their words of intense displeasure over Orbán's filibustering during a meeting in Brussels on Monday.

"The only way I can read the Hungarian position, not just on Ukraine but on many other issues, is that they are against Europe and everything that Europe stands for," said Lithuania's Gabrielius Landsbergis, describing the standoff as a "clash of ideologies."

"If we can get rational and find rational solutions, I won't go deeper in this, but pragmatic, let's call them. Maybe this step can be solved. If not, dark times can lie ahead."

Speaking of a "crucial week for Europe," his Latvian counterpart, Krišjānis Kariņš, said ministers and leaders had to look at all options available to break the deadlock and ensure accession talks receive the political green light.

"Hungary's position right now is, shall we say, a challenge," Kariņš told reporters. "It also underscores the interesting way by which we (make) decisions: by unanimity. Sometimes this is a very good model, and sometimes, as it's now, we see it can have its downsides."

Romania's Luminița Odobescu argued maintaining EU support for Ukraine was of "critical importance" and a "matter of responsibility" and "credibility."

"We have to show there is no fatigue and the EU can deliver when the security in its immediate neighbourhood is at stake," Odobescu said.

Estonia's Margus Tsahkna said Hungary had "no reason" and "no arguments" to block nor the opening of accession talks nor the provision of financial and military support for Ukraine. Doing so, he warned, would be a "bad mistake."

"I really do hope that at the end of this week, we can say that we're using this historical window of opportunity of enlargement and that there will be no country who will block it," Tsahkna said.

'We can't show any sign of weakness'

Orbán's opposition has been often linked to an issue completely unrelated to Russia's war: the billions in EU funds that Brussels has frozen over rule-of-law concerns.

Since late last year, the European Commission has withheld almost €22 billion in cohesion funds as well as the €10.4 billion that make up Hungary's recovery and resilience plan.

Budapest introduced in the spring a reform to strengthen judicial independence and curtail political influence over the courts, in line with the "super milestones" that the Commission had imposed.

The overture led the executive to disburse €920 in pre-financing from the recovery and resilience plan and begin preparations to pay out €10 billion from the cohesion funds. But Orbán, who often refers to the dispute as "financial blackmail," has demanded the release of the entire pot of cash.

"This shouldn't be a game of bargaining. But of course, in this situation we need to find all channels possible which can aid in finding a solution," said Finland's Elina Valtonen, when asked about a possible quid-pro-quo to change Orbán's mind.

"I'm not worried but the position of Hungary has been very, very deplorable over the course of the past months," Valtonen said. "There have to be decisions on Ukraine," she added. "We can't show any sign of weakness."

The entreaties have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Speaking to Hungarian media in Brussels, Foreign Affairs Minister Péter Szijjártó insisted his country would opt for a veto.

"Our position is clear: at the moment, the situation is not right, the situation is not ready for the European Union to start accession negotiations. This is not a tactical move on our part, but it is a well-founded position," the minister said.

Szijjártó denounced as "false" the European Commission's assessment of Ukraine's membership application, which concluded Kyiv had met four of the seven pre-conditions for opening negotiations, with some work still to be done in the field of anti-corruption, de-oligarchisation and the rights of minorities.

The minister said the EU should focus on a strategy of "closer cooperation" with Ukraine without entering into the enlargement territory.

"We don't know the implications of what accession negotiations or accession itself would mean for the European Union," Szijjártó said. "It would be simply irresponsible to open accession negotiations now, not only from a national point of view but also from the point of view of the European Union."

Ukraine's Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, who travelled to Brussels to take part in Monday's meeting, tried to counteract the Hungarian narrative, saying Kyiv had done its "homework," including by changing the legislation on the use of minority languages "in the way Hungary wanted it to be changed."

Kuleba described the opening of accession talks as "the mother of all decisions" and predicted a negative outcome during the summit would reverberate across Europe.

"I can even not imagine – I don't even want to talk about the devastating consequences that will occur (should) the Council fail to make this decision. Not only with regard to Ukraine but in a broader sense, on the issue of enlargement as a whole," Kuleba said.

"The stakes are very high."

Under the current €18-billion programme of macro-financial assistance, the EU has only one payment left for Ukraine, worth €1.5 billion and scheduled for the end of December. If leaders do not approve a budget top-up, the European Commission will be unable to raise fresh money on the market, bringing the support to an abrupt end.