EU leaders were headed for a new round of arm-wrestling with Viktor Orban on Thursday to try to overcome the Hungarian leader’s veto on 50 billion euros in Ukraine aid.
The latest Brussels summit was taking place against the backdrop of swelling protests by European farmers, who clogged roads around the meeting with 1,000 tractors in a show of strength.
Orban — Russia’s closest ally in the EU — sparked fury from his 26 counterparts in the bloc by thwarting a December deal to keep the desperately needed funds flowing to Kyiv nearly two years into Moscow’s invasion.
Speaking on arrival at the summit, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the goal should be a unanimous agreement on keeping aid flowing to Kyiv.
“We need an agreement at 27,” he told reporters. “We shouldn’t look for workarounds”
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo struck an upbeat note, saying he was “confident in our ability to come to a compromise” with all EU members.
But facing down Orban, a veteran of numerous run-ins with Brussels, will not be easy and the political showdown in the EU capital is set to last for hours.
Ever image-conscious, the Hungarian nationalist sought to capitalise on the anger of farmers — whose grievances include the flood of cheaper Ukrainian imports triggered by the conflict — sharing a video online of himself visiting them Wednesday night.
“It’s a European mistake that the voice of people is not taken seriously, they are not taken seriously by the leaders,” said the Hungarian populist, who held one-on-one talks with both French President Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on the summit’s eve.
Orban has been accused of holding Ukraine’s future hostage in a bid to blackmail Brussels into releasing billions of euros in frozen EU funds for Budapest.
EU officials have been trying to thrash out a compromise with Hungary to get agreement on the four-year package for Ukraine as part of a broader overhaul of the bloc’s budget.
Other leaders have rejected a proposal from Budapest that Orban could approve the aid if he gets the chance to veto it again each year — and are instead offering him only an annual debate on the issue.
If they cannot convince Orban to drop his opposition, EU leaders have pledged to club together as 26 to keep aid flowing for Ukraine’s government to keep paying salaries and services.
But with Kyiv facing possible budget shortfalls by spring and doubts over support from the United States, that option would take more time to put in place and likely cover aid for only one year.
Mounting frustration at Hungary’s role as spoiler has seen calls grow for other leaders to unleash the EU’s Article 7 and strip Budapest of its voting rights.
That would take unanimity from all other 26 leaders and few have been willing to push publicly for this “nuclear option” just yet.
The major leverage for Brussels is around 20 billion euros ($21.7 billion) in frozen EU funds that it refuses to give Budapest because of its poor record on issues including corruption and LGBTQ rights.
In December, Orban allowed through a decision to open membership talks with Kyiv a day after getting a separate 10 billion euros released from Brussels.
And there are strong suspicions that he is playing the same game of chicken now to try to get more money, even if Brussels insists the two issues are not linked.
“It’s not about Ukraine, but basically Orban is using this opportunity to blackmail the institutions of the EU and other member states,” a senior European diplomat said.
While the focus will be on Orban and the general funds for Kyiv, leaders are also set to tangle over the future of EU military support for Ukraine.
Accusations have been levelled that key EU economies such as France, Italy and Spain are not pulling their weight on arming Ukraine.
Scholz, whose country is the largest European donor to Ukraine, has called for others to lay out their military support and do more to help Kyiv.