The European Union’s socially distanced embrace of Ukraine

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 15, 2023
Photo by Jasmine Yu on Unsplash

It’s hard not to see the European Union’s (EU) decision to open its arms to Ukraine as akin to a pandemic-era hug.

Remember, when the communication of affection was restricted to wiggling one’s fingers in the supposed representation of a hug?

Remember fist bumps?

Remember when we raised our palms in courteous salute from a safe three feet away?

Well the EU’s attitude to Ukraine feels a little like that at the moment.

A decade after pro-EU protests erupted in Kyiv’s central square, EU leaders made the historic decision to open the way for Ukraine to join their 27-member club.

And yet, the EU’s goodwill towards Ukraine went only…a metaphorical three feet (with a few wiggling fingers meant to signify an embrace).

When it came to money for Ukraine, the EU sat on its hands. Metaphorically speaking.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who opposes both Ukraine’s accession to the EU as well as any attempt to shovel money towards it, refused to budge on the latter issue. He remained obdurate on the proposal to add €50 billion in aid for Kyiv to the EU’s long-term budget.

Interestingly, Mr Orbán wasn’t totally on his own on that one. According to Politico, two diplomats with knowledge of the matter said Mr Orbán’s position was viewed sympathetically by some others in the room. Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, for instance, also took issue with the idea of granting loans to Ukraine rather than to projects benefitting EU countries.

So what’s really in prospect for Ukraine in its European odyssey? Both near-term and long-term prospects are not certain by any means. While Ukraine had a symbolic victory of sorts because Mr Orbán was persuaded to pop out of the room at the key moment its EU membership was discussed, Hungary can hardly be kept out of other decisions indefinitely. Or indeed for Mr Orbán to enjoy endless cups of solo coffee, which is what Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz suggested to the Hungarian leader  as a nice face-saving measure at the key moment the vote on Ukraine’s membership was taking place.

The European fudge on Ukraine may turn out bittersweet. It will be years – of tortuous negotiation over Ukraine’s agricultural advantage – before EU membership becomes fact. On that issue, it’s not just pro-Putin Hungary but EU heavy-hitter France as well that worries about being upstaged by Ukraine.

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