Negotiations on Ukrainian membership in the European Union should not move forward, with the war-torn country “in no way ready” to join the bloc, Hungary’s premier said.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s remarks came on Friday, two days after Brussels recommended the opening of membership talks. The comments suggest that Budapest could block any formal invitation to Kyiv at a meeting in mid-December at which EU leaders are set to decide.
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Unanimity among all member states is required to admit a new country into the bloc, giving Orban a powerful veto. Under the pro-Russian leader, Hungary has often complicated EU efforts to support Ukraine amid Moscow’s invasion, although Orban has eventually nodded to all military and sanctions packages.
The EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, on Wednesday recommended that Ukraine should be permitted to open membership talks, once it has addressed some shortfalls.
Speaking on his weekly morning slot on state radio, Orban said Ukraine is in no state to join the world’s largest trading bloc.
“Ukraine is in no way ready to negotiate on its ambitions to join the European Union,” Orban said. “The clear Hungarian position is that the negotiations must not begin.”
Holding everyone hostage
Orban’s government has refused to supply Ukraine with weapons in its war against Russia and has threatened to veto EU financial aid packages to Kyiv.
It also accuses Ukraine of violating the rights of an ethnic Hungarian minority in western Ukraine by preventing education in the Hungarian language.
At the same time, Hungary is in a protracted struggle with the EU over alleged infractions of rule-of-law and human rights standards. This has resulted in billions of euros in EU funds being withheld.
Hungary has often been accused of using its EU veto to try to force concessions from Brussels. However, Orban denied that Hungary’s opposition to Ukraine’s EU membership talks was connected to the withheld funds.
He added that his government would “not accept” pressure from the EU to support Ukraine’s membership bid in exchange for having the funds released.
However, EU officials are exhibiting increasing frustration with Hungary’s manoeuvring. Amid suggestions that Budapest could try to block a proposed $53bn aid package for Ukraine, sources told Reuters on Friday that they can work around any veto.
“Hungary risks overstretching its luck. We’d prefer to have them on board but there comes a point when people get fed up with Budapest holding everyone hostage,” one said.
‘One of the most corrupt’
Brussels will also be eyeing the risk that the new government in neighbouring Slovakia might also pose an obstacle.
Its newly elected prime minister, Robert Fico, has threatened to withdraw his country’s military support for Ukraine, and recently called its eastern neighbour “one of the most corrupt countries in the world”.
But in its Wednesday recommendation to proceed with EU accession talks with Kyiv, the European Commission lauded Ukraine, saying that its government “has shown a remarkable level of institutional strength, determination and ability to function”.
It said that talks should only start once it has addressed corruption, lobbying concerns, and restrictions that might prevent national minorities from studying and reading in their own language.