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European Union Agrees to Open Membership Negotiations With Ukraine and Moldova

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By Raf Casert Associated Press

Brussels (AP) — The European Union decided Thursday to open accession negotiations with Ukraine, a stunning reversal for a country at war that had struggled to find the necessary backing for its membership aspirations and long faced opposition from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. online news

European Council President Charles Michel, who was chairing a Brussels summit of the EU’s 27 leaders where the decision was made, called it “a clear signal of hope for their people and our continent.”

Although the process between opening negotiations and Ukraine finally becoming a member could take many years, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the agreement as “a victory for Ukraine. A victory for all of Europe.”

“History is made by those who don’t get tired of fighting for freedom,” Zelenskyy said.

Left on the summit agenda now is a promise to give Ukraine the money and wherewithal to stave off Russia’s invasion, another agenda item held up by Orban.

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The Hungarian leader came into the summit vowing to both block the plans by his 26 fellow leaders to officially declare that membership negotiations with Ukraine can start, and more pressingly, deny Kyiv 50 billion euros ($54 billion) in financial aid that the country desperately needs to stay afloat.

“The European Union is about to make a terrible mistake and they must be stopped — even if 26 of them want to do it, and we are the only ones against it,” Orban said in comments released by his office Thursday. “This is a mistake, we are destroying the European Union.”

EU leaders had expected the summit to take at least until late Friday before any sort of breakthrough might be clinched, so the fateful announcement came totally unexpectedly after Orban did not block the move by his colleagues.

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Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission arrives for a EU Summit, at the EU headquarters in Brussels, on June 30, 2023. Courtesy of Shutterstock Author: Alexandros Michaildis

A beaming Michel came down in the summit media room unscheduled and said “This is a historic moment, and it shows the credibility of the European Union. The strength of the European Union. The decision is made.”

He said the negotiations would open before a report will be made to the leaders in March.

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“It was important that no member state would oppose this decision,” said Michel, adding he was confident a consensus could be found on the financial aid.

The surprise came at an dire time for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, straight off a trip to Washington where his pleas for more aid from the U.S. Congress fell on deaf ears.

“Ukraine will not stand without supports and ongoing support from both the European Union and the U.S,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar had warned. “Barring that, he added “well then, Putin will win.”

The urgency to find a solution is matched only by the potential blow to the EU’s credibility, Zelenskyy said in a video address to the leaders.

“Nobody wants Europe to be seen as untrustworthy. Or as unable to take decisions it prepared itself,” he said.

Referring to Putin, he added, “Don’t give him this first – and only – victory of the year. Europe must win, agreements must be honored.”

“Whatever it takes” had been the relentless mantra of the EU in pledging its support, leaders dressed up in the yellow and sky-blue colors of Ukraine, and countless speeches ending with the rallying cry “Slava Ukraini!” — “Glory to Ukraine!”

And again, against the odds, the EU prevailed.

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The EU, a group of 27 nations which still cherish their independence on strategic and foreign affairs issues, works by unanimity on most issues relating to Ukraine. Orban is seen by many as Putin’s foot in the summit door, Putin’s wrecking ball to demolish EU support for Zelenskyy.

Even ahead of the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had already taken Orban aside in an attempt to make him change his mind.

“It is important that a clear signal of support be sent here – a signal directed to the courageous citizens of Ukraine, who are defending their country, but a signal also directed to the Russian president,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Orban has complained of corruption in Ukraine and has demanded a “strategic discussion” on the country’s future in Europe as the war with Russia bogs down and concerns mount about what kind of administration might emerge in Washington after the U.S. elections in a year.

Orban has been at odds with his fellow EU leaders for years, ranging from fights over COVID-19 recovery money to his declining respect for the Western democratic principles that are the essence of the EU. Yet as the longest-serving EU leader, he knows how to play the summit room like few others and has been able to extract financial concessions time and again to shore up his struggling economy.

The EU relented on Wednesday and granted Hungary access to over 10 billions euros ($11 billion) in funds that had been frozen by the European Commission out of concern that democratic backsliding by Orban could put the bloc’s principles at risk. The Commission said it did so after Budapest had made the necessary concessions on the rule of law principle and denied it was a bargaining chip.

AP writers Lorne Cook in Brussels and Justin Spike in Budapest contributed.

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