Hungary opposes billions in new EU aid for Ukraine. A new summit will try to change that

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Rescuers work at the scene of a building damaged by Russian rocket attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrii Marienko)

BRUSSELS – European Union leaders at a summit on Thursday will focus on the one member state blocking a 50-billion-euro ($54 billion) war support package for Ukraine: Hungary, the country in the bloc with the closest ties to Russia.

Almost two years after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine, the war has ground to a virtual stalemate and Ukraine desperately needs financial assistance.

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“Securing agreement is vital for our credibility, and not least for our commitment to provide steadfast support to Ukraine,” EU Council president Charles Michel said in his invitation letter to leaders of the 27-member bloc. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is expected to take part with a video speech, according to Michel's office.

The aid requires unanimous support. But Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban vetoed it at a previous summit in December and continues to oppose it.

“In December, we still had a little time. But from March onwards, Ukraine will start running into difficulties according to international financial institutions,” a senior EU diplomat warned ahead of the meeting in Brussels. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with EU practices.

For most EU countries, helping Ukraine is crucial to protect the bloc from Russia's threats and maintain its credibility on the global stage.

"Ukraine is on European soil. It is a European country. And if we want a peaceful and stable Europe, we need to be credible in terms of our own security and defense vis-à-vis all our neighbors,” French president Emmanuel Macron said.

Orban has repeatedly angered EU leaders since Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022. He criticized EU sanctions on Russia as being largely ineffective and counter-productive. He pushed for peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv, though he hasn’t detailed what that might mean for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

At the previous EU summit, however, Orban did not prevent the EU from starting membership negotiations with Ukraine.

Concerned about democratic backsliding by Orban’s government, the EU has frozen Hungary’s access to tens of billions of euros in funds. Hungary, with its own economic concerns, has responded by vetoing some EU political decisions.

Instead of unlocking the new aid for Ukraine, Orban has proposed to split it into annual tranches and introduce a review mechanism. But that idea has not been well received because it would allow Orban to block the money later.

If the stalemate remains, it will not mean that Ukraine will suddenly be deprived of EU assistance. The EU diplomat said leaders will make sure it won't impact Ukraine in the short term.

The 26 other countries could decide, on a voluntary basis, to decouple the aid from the EU budget. But it’s not their favorite option since it would require approval from several national parliaments, creating more uncertainty.

Another scenario could see EU leaders extending by one year the 18 billion euros ($19.5 billion) in financial assistance they provided in 2023 to Ukraine from another program, and top it up with additional loans. That could be adopted with a qualified majority, meaning Hungary could not stop it.

In total, EU support to Ukraine since the war began amounts to some 85 billion euros ($92 billion), according to EU figures. That includes more than 40 billion euros ($43 billion) to support Ukraine’s economy, around 27 billion euros ($29.2 billion) in military assistance measures and over 17 billion euros ($18.4 billion) to help EU member states support Ukrainians fleeing the war.

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