The European Union decided Thursday to open accession negotiations with Ukraine, a momentous moment and stunning reversal for a country at war that had struggled to find the backing for its membership aspirations and long faced obstinate opposition from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
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.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said it also was a black eye for Russian President Vladimir Putin: “It is a very clear message to Moscow. Us Europeans, we don’t let go of Ukraine,” he said.
Orban said his opposition remained steadfast, but, with a unanimous decision required, he decided to let his right to oppose lapse because the 26 others were arguing so strongly in favor. Under EU rules, an abstention does not prevent a decision from being adopted.
An EU official, who asked not to be identified because the summit negotiations were private, said Orban was “momentarily absent from the room in a pre-agreed and constructive manner” when the decision was made.
Orban said he stepped aside since all of his counterparts were committed to putting Ukraine on the EU membership path, though their position did not change his mind.
“Hungary’s perspective is clear: Ukraine is not ready for us to begin negotiations on its EU membership. It’s a completely illogical, irrational and improper decision” he said.
Others lauded Orban’s gesture; they were preparing for a summit that some feared might spill over into an extra day Saturday.
“Certainly quicker than any of us expected,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said.
“In fairness to Prime Minister Orban, he made his case, made it very strongly. He disagrees with this decision and he’s not changing his opinion in that sense, but essentially decided not to use the veto power,” Varadkar said.
“I have to say, I respect the fact that he he didn’t do that, because it would have put us in a very difficult position as a European Union,” the Irish leader added.
Belgium’s De Croo had a slightly different take, saying he thought Orban “didn’t use his veto because he realized that it would be indefensible.”
At the same time as Ukraine, the EU leaders also decided to open membership negotiations with Ukraine’s neighbor Moldova.
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.
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 $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.
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.
The surprise came at an dire time for Zelenskyy, straight off a trip this week to Washington where his pleas for more aid from the U.S. Congress fell on deaf ears. Ukraine’s president is looking for a better response in Brussels.
“It is just as important that Ukraine has the means to continue the war and rebuild its country,” De Croo said.
The urgency to find a solution is matched only by the potential blow to the EU’s credibility, the Ukrainian president said in a video address to the leaders assembled in Brussels.
“Nobody wants Europe to be seen as untrustworthy. Or as unable to take decisions it prepared itself,” he said.
“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.