The decision by European leaders to open formal EU membership negotiations with Ukraine is historic – it offers hope to a people who are courageously fighting Russian aggression and sacrificing their lives for a European future. The agreement marks a historic new chapter for the EU. But legally, it required the unanimity of all 27 leaders, and it only became possible because Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán – who had threatened to block the opening of talks with Ukraine – left the room, in effect abstaining rather than wielding his veto.
The fact that 26 EU leaders, including Orbán’s supposed allies, signed up despite his opposition underscores the importance of this historic step. Yet it is tainted by the questionable means through which the agreement was achieved.
In a highly dubious deal that emerged in the run-up to the summit, the European Commission had unblocked €10.2bn, a third of an overall sum for Hungary frozen as punishment for Orbán’s dismantling of the rule of law. The Hungarian government made token reforms to restore judicial independence, but they fall far short of what is needed.
This was a capitulation to Orbán’s dirty blackmail tactics, and it undermines the EU’s credibility in enforcing the rule-of-law standards required by membership.
While Ukraine’s EU accession will be a lengthy process and presents immense challenges, these pale in comparison with the strategic importance of a European nation resisting falling under the control of Vladimir Putin. Moreover, hashing out technical integration details and finding compromises is actually where the EU excels.
But instead of coupling their decision on Ukraine with a firm, commonsense political strategy towards Hungary, European leaders have managed to send a mixed and disconcerting message that emboldens Orbán’s bullying. [Continue reading…]