”The last regular European Council meeting in 2023, on December 14 and 15, promises to be a very challenging one. All the salient topics of 2023 – notably the war in Ukraine, enlargement, revision of the EU’s multiannual financial framework (MFF) and the conflict in the Middle East – are on the agenda; and on many of these, EU leaders are divided. Whereas the conclusions on the war in Ukraine and the conflict in the Middle East will reiterate previous positions, the European Council will focus on seeking an agreement in principle on enlargement, in particular on the possible opening of EU accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, and on granting candidate status to Georgia. It will also endeavour to find an agreement on the MFF revision. —.”

(European Parliament briefing ahead of the meeting)

Much will no doubt be written about the dynamics in and around the EU Council summit in December 2023. During a matter of hours, news coming out of Brussels changed from euphoria to disappointment from the perspective of many observers hoping for strong agreement on the way ahead for the EU and Ukraine.

First, the President of the European Council Charles Michel cabled out an agreement about moving forward with EU enlargement and later a statement about the budget for the coming years. Both agreements were made among 26 out of 27 member states – without Hungary.

On enlargement, the main parts of the conclusions concerned Ukraine and Moldova and constituted a formal EU agreement in the absence of a Hungarian vote. That was something many observers had not seen possible, given the insistence of Hungary to block what had to be unanimous decisions.

The European Council decides to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and with the Republic of Moldova.

The European Council also decides to grant the status of candidate country to Georgia, on the understanding that the relevant steps set out in the Commission recommendation of 8 November 2023 are taken.

The decision on the multiannual financial framework, including support to Ukraine was, however, delayed as described by Michel although overwhelmingly supported:

The MFF (Multiannual financial framework) Revision — is firmly supported by 26 Heads of State or Governments. We will revert early next year.

As often happens in the EU, agreements on principles seemed to contradict agreements on implementation.

When seeking to understand what happened, pictures say more than words. The scene captured, circulated in the media, of the two EU institutional leaders sitting together with the President of France and the Chancellor of Germany, with the Prime Minister of Hungary in the middle says something about the way the European Union is led.

One can only imagine the spoken and unspoken pressure put on Orbán in that situation leading to the above-mentioned outcome. So, the dissenting party Hungary decided to stay outside the room when a fundamental decision in principle was taken not to have to face unforeseeable consequences but returned with a vengeance when it came to agreeing on implementation.

As we have seen also in NATO during recent summits, there comes a point when decisions must be taken. So, there was a decision in principle to invite Ukraine and several other states to accession negotiations to join the EU. But Hungary can be expected to try to continue to block the implementation of this and a number of other decisions.

For the Hungarian leader, however, the situation was challenging in more ways than non-experts probably can imagine. Hungary is under international pressure from the east, it has a difficult situation economically, and on top of that, this country is going to take over the rotating presidency of the EU in six months’ time. The program for the Presidency is most likely to focus on ending the isolation of Hungary within the EU.

If in normal situations, a country can achieve a lot by always trying to avoid what is called a demandeur position (“I can live without an agreement and I am not under time pressure”). But this is more complicated in the case for an incoming rotating presidency of the EU, even if many of its functions with the Lisbon Treaty has been taken over by the permanent leadership of the European Council and the High Representative. There is a great amount of prestige involved and the presidency needs to mobilize cooperation on the part of other member states. Being isolated may have important domestic political costs as illustrated by the recent elections in Poland where the previous anti-EU government was voted out of power.

Orbán has both short and long-term considerations to make about what Ukraine means for Hungary. Short-term benefits of good relations with Russia make up one part of it. But Ukraine is also a huge neighbour in terms of resource requirements, almost right next door to Hungary. Orbán has already seen his country, moving from a stronger, supported candidate to becoming member of NATO and EU – to eventually becoming more and more isolated and deprived of economic support from the EU. That enlargement will bring both intense economic competition for support from the EU to the neighbourhood of Hungary is obvious if one also includes further enlargement in the western Balkans.

The decision to signal a willingness to enlarge the Union is from the perspectives of the larger countries, Germany, and France, a strategic one relating to worries about the future of Europe. Enlargement is intended to signal deterrence to Russia, a continuation of the mobilization of a political will on the European level, which many Russian analysts initially thought impossible. And enlargement is intended as a signal to the US President and the incoming American leadership that Europe is willing to take a responsibility for its own region, which in turn is deemed a necessary condition for the mobilization of continued American support.

So, what can Hungary and other member states, possibly hiding behind Budapest, do in such a situation of intense pressure from the main European powers in the picture above? Delaying agreement on the multiannual financial framework in this situation gives Budapest – perhaps at most – one or two more months to bargain for a better outcome from its perspective.

However, again, as illustrated by NATO history, there are limits to what can be achieved in such a negotiation. Hungary is facing the risk that a coalition of the willing possibly including all member states except Hungary will go ahead with finding another format to deliver economic and political support to Ukraine, outside the formal EU framework. The European Peace Facility is already a budget outside this framework. Hungary, inside the EU and NATO, as well as Turkey inside NATO, in the final analysis need friends inside the respective organizations. Playing for time may only bring time-limited benefits and may have domestic political consequences sooner or later.

Media have recently concentrated attention on a tendency of weakening support for Ukraine in many European states and Hungary might be hoping for continued tendencies in this direction. At the same time, statistics show that Europe altogether delivers more assistance to Ukraine than the United States. And the European Peace Facility has mobilized economic resources from the number of EU member states which most likely would not have paid up bilaterally. Notably, the decision to deliver ammunition to Ukraine was taken in a few months’ time in the spring of 2023 – a remarkable example of an ability for quick decision-making in the EU (even if implementation of the delivery of 1 million artillery ammunition pieces to Ukraine so far has not met expectations.)

But there is another complicating factor not mentioned above: that Europe is proceeding towards elections to the European Parliament in April 2024. The European Parliament is one of the budgetary authorities of the European Union without which not much will work. The political power balance in the parliament is also decisive for the election of European leaders for the coming Commission and European Council, including a new High Representative. Maybe Orbán –  as not doubt Russia –  hopes for changes  in this context as already indicated by the polls (projecting a shift to the right) just as they may be hoping for changes in view of the American elections in November of 2024.

 The author is former ambassador, holds a PhD and is a fellow of The Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences