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EU overcomes Orban's veto on €50 billion Ukraine aid deal

Ella Joyner in Brussels
February 1, 2024

The European Union has triumphed over Viktor Orban's opposition to unlock a €50-billion aid package for Ukraine. Both sides celebrated the deal as a political victory.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at an EU summit
In private, EU diplomats say Orban is getting harder and harder to work withImage: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Frustration with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was palpable among European Union (EU) leaders arriving at a summit in Brussels on Thursday to discuss an aid package for Ukraine. For weeks, Orban had been holding back the EU from agreeing upon funds that would prop up Ukraine's economy, which has been straining under the ongoing war efforts after Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022.

However, the leaders came to a surprisingly quick result: Within an hour of meeting, the 27 EU members signed off a new €50 billion ($54 billion) aid package to support Ukraine's economy through 2027. The funds consist of grants and loans financed from the EU budget.

EU agrees €50-billion aid package for Ukraine

"We have a deal," European Council President Charles Michel announced on X, formerly Twitter. "This locks in steadfast, long-term, predictable funding for Ukraine. The EU is taking leadership and responsibility in support for Ukraine," he wrote.

The new cash injection is separate from the substantial military aid the EU and its member states send Kyiv. It is intended to pay for pensions and government salaries and to free up state funds.

'Orban fatigue' sets in 

In recent years, Hungary's national-conservative leader Orban has frequently resorted to vetoes to hold up joint EU and NATO decisions, leaving fellow leaders increasingly exasperated, particularly with his stance towards Ukraine. Orban has also been public about his close ties with Russia,  raising EU-wide concerns.

While the shared EU position is to support and arm Kyiv "as long as it takes" in its war with Russia, Orban has frequently supported Moscow by delaying bloc measures and sanctions against Russia.

How much aid has Ukraine received from the EU?

The new leader of Poland, a country that until a recent change in government had frequently sided with Orban in some EU debates, had harsh words as he arrived on Thursday.

"There is no problem with so-called Ukraine fatigue. We have Orban fatigue," Prime Minister Donald Tusk said. "I can't understand. I can't accept this very strange egoistic game," he added, referring to Orban's unique stance in blocking EU anonymous decisions.

Orban sees 'mission accomplished'

The remaining 26 EU member states were prepared to sign off on the new funds for Ukraine the last time they met in December when the EU also agreed to open EU accession talks with Ukraine. Orban accepted the latter but not the former — hence the need for a dedicated extraordinary summit to revisit the issue on Thursday.

One of the points of contention in the deal was an annual mechanism for reviewing the aid package. The official joint EU concluding statement now refers to an annual "debate" on the fund and of the European Commission potentially conducting a review "if needed" in two years. Multiple diplomatic sources from other EU countries told DW they believed the review mechanism was toothless.

Nevertheless, following the signing of the deal, Orban claimed political victory. "Mission accomplished," he posted on X. "We have a control mechanism at the end of the first and the second year," he added, omitting the agreement's details.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (L), European Council President Charles Michel, France's President Emmanuel Macron, Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni (3rdR), Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz sitting at a roundtable
On Thursday, leader came to a quick breakthroughImage: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Orban is locked in a long-standing dispute with EU officials who reprimand him for the backsliding of Hungarian democracy under his government. Their most substantial move to date has been withholding EU funds earmarked for Budapest in exchange for rule of law reforms.

'Two bitter pills'

Several diplomats told DW the path to a quick agreement was cleared by a string of meetings between various leaders ahead of time. One official told DW that Germany played a large role in swaying Hungary by taking a tougher line than usual.

The same diplomat suggested that Hungary simply had to spread two concessions —one on the accession talks and the other on the new fund over two summits."It seems that the two bitter pills were too much for Orban to take in one summit so it had to be split into two," the source said.

The US Capitol building, also seen in the reflection of a window
It is not only Europe that is struggling politically to sign off assistance for Ukraine, funding is also held up in WashingtonImage: Liu Jie/Xinhua/picture alliance

With European Council President Charles Michel hailing the summit as a victory for EU unity, it remains to be seen whether Orban will change tack or remain combative.

Elections for the European Parliament are set for June, and for the US presidency in November. In an EU-wide poll, the far right is expected to fare well, while Donald Trump could also return as leader in Washington. That would recast the political landscape in Orban's favor.

Zelenskyy sees ball passing to Washington

Marta Mucznik, an analyst from the conflict resolution think tank International Crisis Group, said that while pressure had apparently brought Hungary's position around this time, Ukraine's allies' support was clearly under strain.

"It's increasingly contested ground, Western aid to Ukraine," Mucznik said. "It's not just an internal debate. It's a debate in the United States. It's a debate also within Europe among different member states with different foreign policy priorities, different threat perceptions, different sensitivities."

"As the war drags on (...) it becomes increasingly more difficult for the EU also to convince its own populations of the need to continue to back Ukraine," she said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the EU decision on Thursday. "It is very important that the decision was made by all 27 leaders, which once again proves strong EU unity," he posted on X. With an eye toward Washington, where Republican lawmakers have been stalling a package of aid planned by Democrat President Joe Biden, he also said that "with today's big decisions, Europe is sending a signal across the Atlantic and around the world that the international rules-based world order will endure challenges."

Edited by: Maren Sass