EU grants Ukraine membership talks but can’t agree financial aid

EU grants Ukraine membership talks but can’t agree financial aid
EU grants Ukraine membership talks but can’t agree financial aid

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - European Council President Charles Michel speaks to members of the media, on the day of the European Union and Western Balkans leaders’ summit, in Brussels December 14, 2023. — Reuters pic

BRUSSELS, Dec 15 — European Union (EU) leaders agreed to open membership talks with Ukraine even as it continues to fight Russia’s invasion, but they could not agree on a €50 billion (RM256.3 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 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 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.

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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,” said Rutte.

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 they channel aid to Ukraine outside the EU budget if Budapest maintains its blockade.

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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 counter-offensive against Russian forces has failed to make major gains and with US President Joe Biden so far unable to get a US$60 billion (RM280 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,” declared Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

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

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz played a key role in getting Orban to leave the room to clear the way for a decision, diplomats and officials said. 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,” Scholz said on social media platform X.

The leaders said they would also start membership talks with Bosnia once it has undertaken certain political reforms.

Orban’s objections

Orban had cited corruption and other issues in arguing Ukraine was not ready for EU talks but EU 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 (RM52.2 billion) in refunds for economic projects after finding it had fulfilled conditions on the independence of its judiciary.

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 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.

In the midst of war, geographically bigger than any EU member and with a population of 44 million, Ukraine presents some unique challenges for admission to the 27-member bloc.

But membership talks will likely take years and 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 once Ukraine meets outstanding requirements on democracy and the rule of law. — Reuters

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