As EU leaders start arriving in Brussels for the December European Council meeting – to be held tomorrow and Friday – all eyes will be on Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán.
There has never been such a time in the history of the European Union where its leaders are meeting without any clear idea of whether they can reach an agreement on three crucial issues: the revision of the Multiannual Financial Framework, which sets out the annual ceilings of expenditure that can be spent on various policy areas; assistance to Ukraine; and EU enlargement. This meeting is crucial, as failure to reach an agreement, primarily on EU enlargement, would send the wrong signal to the people in the Western Balkans, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. More importantly, it would send a discouraging message that the EU has failed the test of time. Should the EU fail to reach an agreement on enlargement, future agreements on EU reforms would also be in jeopardy.
What is at stake?
The European Council was expected to give its nod of approval for the Western Balkan countries, together with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, to open EU membership negotiations. This follows the green light by the European Commission in the latest enlargement package issued in November. Yet, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán refuses to accept that the EU opens negotiations with Ukraine, citing Ukraine’s unpreparedness to join the Union. Such a posture is sending out the wrong impression on the EU’s unity. Some feel that Orbán’s refusal is tantamount to betrayal. Others expected Orbán to negotiate unfreezing EU funds, previously frozen on concerns about the rule of law in Hungary – as he has in fact done. In fact, the European Commission has today made a strategic decision to unfreeze a substantial portion of Hungary’s funding, releasing approximately €10 billion from the total amount held back. The Commission acknowledged Hungary’s recent efforts to address judicial reforms, allowing for partial access to the funds.
Yet, the crux of the matter is that Hungary is holding the EU hostage, and this further accelerates the calls for reform of the Union.
Agreement on Ukraine’s opening of negotiations will lead to a reform of the European Union itself. At 27, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the EU to function, particularly in those areas where unanimity is required. Should Ukraine ultimately join the EU, its membership – unless the Union reforms itself – would tilt the balance to the East, with the Franco-German pole losing its influence. However, the neecessary reforms likely require unanimity among the current EU27, which might be excruciating for EU unity. Few doubt the need for EU reforms if Europe wants to retain its global influence. However, few question whether abandoning unanimity could actually be the beginning of the EU’s disintegration.
Another issue concerning Ukraine is the provision of assistance to this country under attack, which is around €50 billion for the years 2024-2027. Hungary is also opposing this assistance, and some are interpreting this stance as a nod to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The revision of the Multiannual Financial Framework is also proving a tough nut to crack. The camp is divided into the frugal countries, those opposed to increasing spending, and those who want more money allocated for migration, education, and innovation programmes. The arguments are varied, and the Spanish Presidency of the Council of the EU is increasingly finding itself in a tight jacket. The amount of funds available cannot increase and redeployments must be made, which means less funds for some and more for others.
The EU has a long history of navigating complex diplomatic situations and forging agreements that are acceptable to all sides, and this could be the outcome in the two days ahead. We’ll have to wait and see.
Photo: Virginia Mayo/AP