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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

How a game of good cop-bad cop sealed the EU Ukraine fund deal

Ukrainian soldiers prepare a Stinger missile while manning a mobile air defense unit outside Kyiv on May 23, 2023

By Matina Stevis-Gridneff, Monika Pronczuk and Jason Horowitz

Some European leaders jested they’d send Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary their hotel bills for the extra nights they had to spend in Brussels to persuade him to support funding for Ukraine.

Others, less jokingly, relayed to him that he was facing the risk of a legal suspension from European Union proceedings. And a few offered a friendly, sympathetic ear over late-night drinks as he complained about what he sees as a European bureaucracy stacked against him out of ideological animus.

By Thursday morning, just one hour into an emergency EU summit, this carefully coordinated, behind-the-scenes pressure had forced Orban to fold and agree to a landmark 50 billion-euro ($54 billion) fund for Ukraine that will help the country stay afloat for the next four years, even as U.S. aid is stuck in Congress.

Playing different roles, these European leaders were central to the effort that finally got Orban on board — in a breakthrough not just for Ukraine but for EU unity as well.

European Council President Charles Michel was the bad cop. On Monday he called Orban to let him know there was no way he would be granted his demand for an annual veto right over the Ukraine fund. And he told Orban that some member states were considering launching a procedure that would strip him of his vote entirely — in what would be an unprecedented use of the EU’s rulebook.

Then, Wednesday evening, Orban met with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of Italy, his ideological friend from the hard right, in the executive suite of the stately Amigo hotel — a staple for visiting dignitaries, tucked away in the center of Brussels.

Sitting on green velvet armchairs against the leafy wallpaper, over a bottle of Champagne, Meloni told him he had more to gain from the EU if he played along this time. She suggested that a review of the Ukraine fund in 2025 would go some way toward satisfying his need for close scrutiny of the spending.

Next up was French President Emmanuel Macron, who had hosted Orban for lunch in January in Paris. He met Orban at the Amigo later Wednesday evening and suggested that EU leaders could include some language in their joint conclusions that would nod to Orban’s complaints about being treated unfairly by the EU executive branch.

All the while, Orban knew that a few miles up the street in the European quarter of Brussels, other leaders were meeting to talk about him — without him. A meeting between Michel, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz confirmed that there was nothing to gain from holding out on the Ukraine fund.

That word was relayed back to Orban.

The efforts to get Orban to capitulate — without the EU budging — were unusually complex, reflecting both his unique spoiler role and the importance of getting unanimous agreement on the Ukraine fund.

Small as his country is, Orban has made himself a big antagonist of EU rules and norms, drawing both rebukes and monetary punishments from his partners. He has also been an outsized obstacle to many of Europe’s ambitions, including some sanctions against Russia and even Sweden’s bid to join the NATO alliance.

Orban has repeatedly used the EU requirement for unanimity to push Brussels for concessions — including unfreezing money that has been withheld from Hungary to prod him to make democratic reforms.

Before Thursday’s meeting, Orban had been demanding an annual chance to veto the disbursement of money to Ukraine, but that was rejected. Instead, leaders agreed to a regular review of the spending to assuage concerns about diversion or corruption, EU officials said.

Under the agreement reached Thursday, the European Commission, the EU executive arm, will draft an annual report on how the Ukraine fund is being used. European leaders will have a chance to debate its performance and raise any concerns about it.

The European Parliament needs to approve the fund by simple majority, a bar that should be easily cleared, and the vote could take place as early as this month.

“All 27 leaders agreed on an additional €50 billion support package for Ukraine within the EU budget,” Michel said on social media just an hour into Thursday’s meeting. “This locks in steadfast, long-term, predictable funding,” he added. “EU is taking leadership & responsibility in support for Ukraine; we know what is at stake.”

Talks had been gridlocked, and the mood toward Orban, the closest EU ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin had been souring since he blocked the first Ukraine funding attempt in December.

Ukraine needs the money desperately to keep basic services running. The European aid, to be dispensed in the form of loans and grants over the next four years, would both cover immediate needs and allow Ukraine to plan its long-term budget.

Orban’s obstruction of the EU’s support of Ukraine has been riling his European partners. He has held up or watered down support for Ukraine, including some sanctions against Russia, since the war began.

He has claimed that his resistance comes down to a fundamental disagreement with other European leaders: He does not believe Russia poses a security threat to Europe nor does he think the EU should be throwing its weight behind Ukraine.

If Orban’s demand for an annual veto for the Ukraine fund was a play to get access to more funding, it failed.

Officials Thursday said he had managed only to extract a reference in the summit conclusions urging the European Commission to be “proportionate” in the way it freezes funding for member states it punishes for violations, as is the case with Hungary.

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