BRUSSELS – The European Union is considering unlocking billions of euros for Hungary that were frozen due to concerns about the functioning of the rule of law, as it seeks to win Budapest’s support for aid to Ukraine, including a start of membership talks for Kiev. said senior European officials.
Compared to all other EU countries, Hungary has the closest relationship with Russia and is expected to be the main opponent of a decision expected in December on the possible opening of membership talks with Kiev, which would to request the unanimous support of 27 member countries.
It is also expected to decide on the request of the European Commission that the member countries increase the contribution to the common budget, to increase the aid to Ukraine. Even for this decision, which is expected to be taken this year, unanimous approval will be needed.
A senior EU official told the Reuters news agency that to win Hungary’s vote, the EU is expected to review the status of billions of euros that were frozen over concerns that Prime Minister Viktor Orban has limited the independence of the courts.
“I can’t imagine Hungary agreeing without first providing a solution to the blocked funds,” the official said.
A second EU official confirmed there is a link between the unblocking of funds for Hungary and EU plans that require unanimous approval, including on enlargement and budget talks.
Officials stress, however, that the agreement cannot be considered easy as much depends on Mr. Orban, who is facing economic stagnation and an increase in Hungary’s budget deficit.
“Hungary needs the funds urgently, and this is an impetus for reforms. The Commission needs Hungary, in return to remove its veto on a number of issues”, said a European diplomat. “But I don’t think that the Commission can act without a change of attitude on the reforms from Budapest”.
EU officials told the Reuters news agency that laws passed this summer by Hungary to increase the independence of the judiciary brought the possibility of a deal to unlock part of the 22 billion euros earmarked for economic development. Last week, the Commission addressed a letter to Budapest asking for more details on the implementation of the new legislation.
Speaking in Budapest on Tuesday, Hungary’s minister for European affairs said he thought an agreement would be reached with the EU on the frozen funds “by the end of the year”.
In trying to reach an agreement with Hungary, the EU faces the tension between its two main objectives – protecting democratic standards in its member states and supporting Ukraine, which is trying to repel the onslaught of Russian forces and integrate into the structures of the West.
Ukraine applied for EU membership just days after Russia launched its military offensive in February last year. Western support is existential for Ukraine, and EU membership is one of the country’s primary objectives.
Before EU leaders vote in December, the commission will present an assessment in the coming weeks on Ukraine’s progress towards meeting the conditions for starting membership talks.
Mr Orban has said that “very difficult questions” must be answered before the EU can begin membership talks with Ukraine, a process that could take years before possible membership. Speaking in the Hungarian parliament last week, he defined support for Ukraine and the unblocking of EU funds as two separate issues.
“Brussels… wants us to agree on a change in the European Union budget, for which we need unanimity,” he said. “They are asking us to give even more money to Ukraine.”
“Brussels must give us the money that belongs to the Hungarians and thus the state of public finances will improve… The amount they owe us, I am convinced will balance the budget,” said Mr. Orban.