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Analysis | For Kiev, good news from Brussels | War in Ukraine

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This political “yes” to Ukraine was celebrated by the first interested, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. (archive photo)

  • François Brousseau (View profile)François Brousseau

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Surprise in Brussels and reassurance in Kiev, yesterday, Thursday December 14, when times are difficult for Ukraine… and good news is rather rare. And this, precisely on the day when, in Moscow, Vladimir Putin gloated during his annual question-and-answer session… announcing that Russian victory in the lands of Ukraine is “now certain”.

The surprise is that negotiations for Ukraine's accession to the European Union were formally launched on the first day of quarterly summit of 27 member state leaders.

While Hungary's veto against a decision that requires unanimity was expected, Prime Minister Viktor Orban did not take part in the decision. He whose opposition to Ukraine and friendship towards Moscow are an open secret, agreed to leave the room at the time of the vote. There was therefore unanimity… from the 26 heads of state and government present around the table.

This is a historic green light. It is true that there are many bureaucratic steps in European decision-making processes: five weeks ago, there was already a similar announcement by the European Commission. Senior officials led by German Ursula von der Leyen agreed with their Ukrainian counterparts on a timetable and on the subjects to be negotiated: rule of law, fight against corruption, harmonization of regulations, etc. There are seven conditions for admission, three of which – according to Brussels – are not yet met by Kiev.

War in Ukraine

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War in Ukraine

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This Thursday, it is the political body, with the heads of state and government around the table, which said yes in turn. In the European system, this type of decision of strategic importance – but not all decisions, contrary to popular belief – requires unanimity.

A historic green light, but the outcome of which we do not yet know. Ukraine remains a country at war. The long process which must materialize the resolutely Western choice of the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians… may still stumble along the way. But for kyiv, Europe now represents the hope of true salvation and an unsurpassable horizon sheltered from the storms coming from the East. An irony, when Europe, divided on so many subjects, doubts itself and questions its identity.

This political yes to Ukraine was celebrated by those first involved. Volodymyr Zelensky – the president-traveler for whom times are difficult – rejoiced on social networks: Victory for Ukraine. Victory for all of Europe. Victory that motivates, inspires and strengthens. And the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, echoes:  A clear signal of hope for their people and for our continent. Two quotes among a thousand, which explicitly link the destiny of Europe to that of the Ukrainian battlefield.

And these are not just theoretical fine words: through its deep involvement behind Ukraine, with the idea of ​​defending the freedom of a nation and its political choice, Europe has, for better or for worse , linked its destiny to that of this country. A victory for Russia would also be a serious defeat for Russia. Zelensky knows it, Putin knows it, and more and more European leaders say they are convinced of it.

This decision comes at a crucial moment for Zelensky , who has just returned from a disappointing visit to the United States, where he pleaded for desperately needed money for his war effort.

Resistance from the Republican right to credits in favor of kyiv is becoming stronger. Time will tell whether the negative vote on aid to Ukraine on December 6 in the Senate is definitive or whether it was just an incident. But it is clear that the political divisions in Congress and the curious American parliamentary practices, which link separate subjects in the same vote (aid to Ukraine, aid to Israel, control of the Mexican border), are detrimental today Ukrainian interests.

There is also very clearly, in the Republican Party, the rise of an increasingly openly pro-Russian wing. A pro-Russian extreme right: a singular historical novelty in the American ideological panorama, which delights Vladimir Putin.

The circumstances of Viktor Orban's abstention , Thursday evening, deserve to be recounted. The Figaroprovided exclusive details from the scene: it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz who, in a closed-door plenary meeting, allegedly convinced Viktor Orban to step down during the vote. He would have said openly, in front of the others: Can you not participate in the vote? And there… Viktor Orban nodded, got up then went out for a few minutes, wrote Le Figaro.

We know that the Hungarian Prime Minister is the most pro-Russian of all European leaders. Perhaps even the only one who really is (we sometimes also ask questions about the allegiances of the Czech and Slovak leaders)… We know that Orban has had a personal and privileged relationship with Vladimir Putin for around fifteen years and that the Hungary is one of the last countries in Europe to still buy Russian gas.

In this about-face by the Hungarian, money may have been a factor. Orban would have let himself be bought. Explanation.

In recent days, it has been announced in Brussels that a substantial sum of the post-Covid European recovery plan promised to Hungary (as to all other members) – around 10 billion euros – will finally be paid to Budapest.

Two Central European countries, Poland and Hungary, have had trouble with the European Commission for two or three years. For what? Because of the attacks, in these two countries, on the rule of law: on the independence of the judiciary, the partisan control of public media, among other criticisms… With the punishment of non-payment of these considerable sums.

But over the past few days – has timing played a role? Was it justified or arbitrary? – suddenly Hungary returned to the smell of holiness. In any case, enough to recover these promised amounts. Maybe that moved Viktor Orban, who for a few minutes went for a walk outside the room, so that the others could say yes to Ukraine by a vote of 26 to 0.

So (relatively) good news for kyiv… but in a context which remains very difficult, with a reserved prognosis for the future, and not necessarily pleasant developments. In the hours following Orban's judicious abstention, the same troublemaker returned to the charge, this time blocking the budget which provided for a multi-annual European aid plan to the tune of 50 billion euros. By writing: we will come back to the issue next year.

We know it and we repeat it: the news has been rather bad for several months for the Ukrainian cause. Both on the ground and on the diplomatic front. But be careful: the exaggerated optimism of spring 2023 (taking back all the stolen territory in a few months) was followed by perhaps exaggerated pessimism in the fall.

The year 2024 may hold even more surprises.

According to a senior official European cited on December 14 by Le Figaro,  there is no fatigue among Europeans regarding Ukraine. Just because it is difficult and laborious does not mean the strategic importance of seeing Russia fail has waned. Holding out over time requires a very big effort, and that's what Orban is playing on by trying to instill doubt among his counterparts.

What we see in Europe at the end of 2023, more than what we call war fatigue… would rather resemble a renewed determination (the American case is different).

Viktor Orban would then represent an exception and a sort of spur that pushes others to unite in the opposite direction. Despite the costs. Despite doubts about the outcome of the war. Despite the Poland-Ukraine agricultural disputes.

To reinforce the idea – repeated every day by Zelensky, taken up in Paris, Rome, and more and more in Berlin – that in this bloody drama since February 2022, where the civilian victims are all on the same side, it is also the security of the whole of Europe that is at stake… and not just that of Ukraine.

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