EU leaders start down a long road to Ukraine.

EU leaders yesterday gave the green light to begin accession negotiations with Ukraine. The specifics of the decision were "classic political sausage making". The European Council, after all, makes decisions, as the EU Treaty states, "by consensus". Sometimes this is possible only if a country objecting leaves the room during the voting. Not wishing to face the reaction from his 26 EU counterparts, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made himself scarce when the other leaders did the deed. 

Accession negotiations with Ukraine will be a historic process that will, over time, fundamentally change the country and the EU itself. Hungary retains the option of blocking Ukrainian membership, but it is now clear that Orbán, when completely isolated, will not single-handedly dare to block the process. Even new Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico did not take Hungary's side. Orbán’s bombastic talk about wielding a future veto over Ukraine should be appropriately discounted.

This does not mean that Ukraine's accession is certain. Many obstacles remain including the war with Russia, required economic reforms, and a need to adjust the EU Treaty to accommodate Ukraine (and any other new EU members). But Hungary alone will not stop the EU from expanding.

Meanwhile, EU leaders punted on an agreement on the mid-term review of the bloc’s budget. That has now been pushed to a likely special European Council meeting in January. This in some ways mirrors the US Congress’ process for funding for Ukraine. A  decision on that has also been pushed into 2024. On the table in Brussels, however, was €50 billion for Ukraine through 2027 and an unspecified amount of extra money sought by the European Commission for other unforeseen expenses in the seven-year EU budget. Only Hungary opposed the money for Ukraine, but a number of frugal EU members, including Germany, have voiced skepticism about expanding the non-Ukraine-related parts of the budget.

Fortunately for the EU and Ukraine, Orbán's support is ultimately not required to secure the €50 billion. This can be done if the other member states establish an "inter-governmental special purpose vehicle", a more complex legal process than just updating the existing EU budget. That, however, necessitates the extra European Council meeting. But even then, bypassing a Hungarian veto may be on the agenda.