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Wider Europe Briefing: A Crucial Week In Brussels

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) talks with Viktor Orban at the inauguration of new Argentinian President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires on December 10. The Hungarian prime minister is seen as the main stumbling block to Kyiv getting the green light this week to start EU accession talks.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) talks with Viktor Orban at the inauguration of new Argentinian President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires on December 10. The Hungarian prime minister is seen as the main stumbling block to Kyiv getting the green light this week to start EU accession talks.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on what's going to be a crucial week in Brussels, with possible movement on EU enlargement and support for Ukraine.

The Briefing: A Week Of Historic Decisions Or A Week Of Kicking The Can Down The Road?

What You Need To Know: This week is crunch time in Brussels. Starting already on December 11, EU foreign ministers meet to take stock of support for Ukraine and to consider more Russia sanctions. The following day, the bloc's Europe ministers gather and could -- if the stars are all aligned -- agree on a historic enlargement decision.

Most likely, though, nothing will be resolved before European leaders come to Brussels for their annual pre-Christmas summit on December 14-15. EU officials are already warning that as the agenda is so packed, the summit is likely to extend into the weekend. The key decision will be whether to give Moldova, Ukraine -- and possibly Bosnia-Herzegovina -- the green light to start EU accession talks.

But there are also other issues to tackle before the winter holidays: most urgently, a new proposed package of sanctions on Russia and financial support and arms deliveries for Ukraine. And at the center of all of these decisions -- which mostly means standing in the way of them -- is Hungary.

As always when it comes to the EU, a lot of knots can be untied with the help of money. This year might be no different. Even before the Brussels summit, the European Commission could approve the release of between 10 billion euros ($10.8 billion) and 13 billion euros ($14 billion) of funds for Hungary that previously have been blocked by Brussels due to concerns about the state of the country's rule of law.

Some Hungarian judicial reforms undertaken in recent weeks might be enough to see some of the cash flowing soon and thus soften any enlargement objections Budapest might have.

Most of the money, however, will be spread out over a seven-year period. While this is certainly a lot, there is still another 9 billion euros that remains frozen and Budapest won't be getting its hands on it anytime soon, unless the country undertakes various other reforms in areas such as academic freedom, LGBT rights, and migration.

Deep Background: Will cash alone be enough to convince Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to sign off on the next proposed steps regarding enlargement?

In previous years, getting the money was enough, as the Hungarians -- after earlier objections -- ended up agreeing to Russia sanctions or Kyiv's advancement toward the EU.

This time around, though, things could be a little different. The Hungarian economy is growing again after a couple of years of contraction. And several diplomats I have spoken to -- who have knowledge of the process but who aren't authorized to speak on the record -- said they think that Hungarian resistance is now more ideological and certainly more personal.

On the first point, Orban supposedly feels that the sand is shifting, both in the EU and across the Atlantic, with dwindling support for Ukraine. The winners of recent elections in the Netherlands and Slovakia both support stopping weapons deliveries to Ukraine. And in the United States, similar sentiments are on the rise among some Congressional Republicans.

Back in Europe, for over a year now, farmers in EU countries bordering Ukraine have voiced complaints about Ukrainian agricultural goods that are flooding the market. Now truckers -- notably but not only in Poland -- are blocking substantial parts of the Ukrainian border, unhappy that Ukrainian haulers are being allowed to undercut their prices within the European Union.

On the second point regarding Hungarian objections, that is a reference to Orban's supposed intense dislike of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has criticized the Hungarian prime minister publicly on numerous occasions.

While Hungary is the only EU member state openly questioning whether the EU is ready to accept Ukraine in the future, there is plenty of grumbling in the background. Other members also share concerns about the potential folly of bringing Kyiv in too quickly. There are fears of a Russian response but also misgivings about the enormous political and financial upheaval further enlargement would entail, not to mention the redistribution of funds to accommodate relatively poor new members. It may well be that Orban, sensing he is not alone in his beliefs on enlargement, will push others to air their true feelings.

There is also talk of Orban wanting to prevent a second term for Ursula von der Leyen as the European Commission's president. (In the build-up to the June European Parliament elections, Orban vilified her in an anti-Brussels billboard campaign.) While the Hungarian prime minister can't veto the selection of the commission's president -- the 27 EU heads of state decide via qualified majority -- he is already positioning himself as the de facto leader of a Euroskeptic movement that is growing within the bloc.

Drilling Down

How Will The Enlargement Decision Play Out?

  • In its annual enlargement report in November, the European Commission recommended that Ukraine and Moldova start EU accession talks and Georgia become an official EU candidate country.
  • For Bosnia-Herzegovina, it's a little more complicated. According to the draft of this week's European Commission summit conclusions, seen by RFE/RL, "The Council [of the European Union] recommends that the European Council decides [to open accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina once the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria is achieved.]" This reflects the fact that Bosnia has made only limited progress, fulfilling just two out of the 14 conditions set by Brussels.
  • Take Georgia and Moldova out of the equation for a moment. Unanimity is needed for member wannabes to move to the next step, and my understanding, from talking to EU officials and diplomats of various European countries, is that everyone is generally OK with Tbilisi getting candidate status and Moldova moving one step ahead by opening accession talks. But those countries' EU statuses could be at risk if they become "collateral damage" in the debate over Ukraine. Most EU countries -- at least publicly -- want Ukraine to start accession talks as well. Hungary is the key exception. To complicate matters further, the Baltic trio of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have all countered that if Ukraine fails, then everyone fails.
  • So, who will blink first? In a December 4 letter from Orban to the European Council President Charles Michel, the Hungarian premier appears unyielding, noting that "the commission's recent proposal related to the accession process of Ukraine marks the end of the European Union's enlargement policy as an objective and merit-based instrument. The European Council is now called upon to endorse this proposal, without previously having the opportunity to discuss it." The letter concludes by saying, "I respectfully urge you not to invite the European Council to decide on these matters in December as the obvious lack of consensus would inevitably lead to failure. The European Council must avoid this counterproductive scenario for the sake of unity, our most important asset."
  • So, where does Bosnia fit into all of this? Well, instead of vetoing Ukraine's next step, Hungary might prefer to horse trade. Hungary -- along with Croatia and Slovenia and, most vigorously of all, Austria -- have lobbied for Bosnia to start accession negotiations. Their main argument is what they call "a balanced approach" -- meaning that if you go ahead with the eastern countries, you should also embrace the EU hopefuls in the Western Balkans.
  • On December 13, just before the main EU summit, there is an EU-Western Balkans meeting in Brussels. With no steps forward expected from any of the other countries in the region, Bosnia is the only one that could get something. And Brussels is desperate not to be seen as neglecting these countries yet again -- especially as extra funding for the Western Balkans to the tune of 6 billion euros ($6.45 billion), as proposed in November by the European Commission, is still far from being agreed by all member states.
  • In terms of meeting the EU's targets, Kyiv and Chisinau have managed substantially more than Sarajevo -- a difference that their supporters are keen to highlight. Hungary and Austria, however, would like Ukraine's and Moldova's candidacies to be linked to Bosnia. Yet, being linked is something Ukraine's supporters fear, especially wary that for Budapest it could just be a delay tactic. Just look at North Macedonia and Albania, which are interlinked on their respective EU paths. Right now, Skopje can't move forward because it's unable to get the necessary two-thirds majority in parliament to change the constitution to mention Bulgarians as a founding people of its nation -- a key Bulgarian demand. This has meant Albania has had to wait as well. Bosnia could very well slow down Ukraine's path and some EU diplomats think that this is exactly what Budapest wants.
  • To make things even more complicated, the Netherlands has been vocal in Brussels over the last few days about Bosnia not deserving to start accession talks at all and has expressed its readiness to veto any such move.
  • In its enlargement report a month ago, the European Commission did note that it would report back by March on any progress made on outstanding issues in Bosnia, Moldova, and Ukraine. While March isn't directly mentioned in the European Commission's draft summit conclusions seen by RFE/RL, it's possible that may change and that a March date could be used again to buy time and to allow the member states, if they can't agree in December, to keep kicking the can down the road.

What Else Is On The Table?

  • The EU's 12th Russia sanctions package is likely to get green-lighted in the coming days, largely because it is fairly weak and doesn't touch Russian energy. While Hungary has so far vetoed the entire package, there is an expectation in Brussels that -- after plenty of horse-trading -- its objections will be lifted. This round of sanctions will likely be the last for a while. The EU has run out of ideas and energy to produce more, and it is becoming increasingly hard to achieve unanimity on new measures.
  • Something that almost certainly won't fly is common EU funding to arm Ukraine. So far that has been done via the European Peace Facility (EPF), an off-budget mechanism that the bloc has used to channel 4.6 billion euros ($4.95 billion) worth of military equipment to Kyiv. But the 8th tranche, worth 500 million euros ($540 million), has been blocked by Budapest since the summer. First, Hungary said that Kyiv needed to remove the Hungarian bank OTP from a blacklist produced by Ukraine's National Agency on Corruption, where it was labelled an "international sponsor of war" as it continues to do business in Russia. While Ukraine complied, Budapest now wants assurances from Kyiv that OTP won't be re-listed again -- another potential deadlock that might not be resolved anytime soon.
  • Then there is the question of topping up the EPF by 20 billion euros for the next three years. That is also unlikely to be approved, especially as the German Constitutional Court recently ruled that the country's use of special funds to finance various subsidies violated its constitutional "debt brake." This ruling will have an impact on other member states. Right now, the EU is in the middle of its seven-year budget cycle (2021-2027), and while many countries in the bloc would like to increase the budget to finance anything from the bloc's green transition to the functioning of the Ukrainian government, it will be trickier when the EU's biggest cash cow (Germany) has new legal restraints on how it uses its money and is cutting its own domestic budget. Going forward, arms to Ukraine from EU member states will most likely be funded on a bilateral basis.
  • What about other funds for Ukraine? Earlier this year, the European Commission proposed 50 billion euros ($53.9 billion) for Ukraine for the period 2024-2027. Hungary is -- unsurprisingly -- against this, and, with Germany's new constraints, there might have to be some creativity. Instead of taking money from the EU budget and battling constant Budapest vetoes, 26 EU governments could loan Ukraine money on a monthly or quarterly basis.
  • Among EU officials and diplomats from member states, there is perhaps more annoyance with Hungary than ever before. There isn't a mechanism to kick a member out of the EU; a country must leave voluntarily, as the United Kingdom did after its 2016 referendum. But there is a way to suspend a member states' voting rights in the Council on the European Union, which can amend or veto European Commission proposals, by using the so-called Article 7 procedure.
  • The European Commission and the European Parliament have invoked these articles against Poland and Hungary before, but they have never been approved because to pass they need unanimity and Budapest and Warsaw have always had each other's backs. But with an impending government change in Poland, the procedure might be dropped against Warsaw. Will Budapest then be cornered? Or can it rely on its old ally Slovakia, which could take a more Euroskeptic course with Prime Minister Robert Fico back in power.

Looking Ahead

On December 12, the European Commission is presenting its "Defense Of Democracy" legislative proposal. The commission has said the measures are mostly to make the 2024 European Parliament elections more transparent, but there has been criticism from civil society groups of the EU's "foreign agents' law," where organizations operating in the bloc will have to declare any links or funding coming from non-EU countries. Foreign agents' laws in countries such as Russia have been used to crack down on media and NGOs, and Brussels has been outspoken about "foreign agents'" initiatives in member states such as Hungary and aspiring members such as Bosnia and Georgia.

Also on December 12, the European Commission is set to present its long-awaited proposal for how the EU could use some of the money generated from the sale of frozen Russian assets to support Ukraine financially. It is estimated that up to 300 billion euros have been frozen since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The question now is how much of that money can be used for grants to finance the rebuilding of Ukraine. An estimated 3 billion euros a year would be available, although eurozone countries fear that it would diminish the appetite for nonmember states to keep savings in the European Union.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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About The Newsletter

Wider Europe

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Monday on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

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