EU agrees massive Ukraine aid deal in ‘message’ to Putin
The message is clear. Russia cannot count on any fatigue from Europeans in their support for Ukraine, said French President Emmanuel Macron after the Brussels summit wrapped up
European Union leaders on Thursday overcame months of opposition from Hungarian leader Viktor Orban to agree 50 billion euros ($54 billion) of aid for Ukraine, in a move they hailed as a strong message to Russia.
The deal to keep funds flowing to Ukraine comes as doubts over support from Kyiv’s Western backers have buoyed Russian President Vladimir Putin, nearly two years into his invasion of the neighbouring country.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the European Union for the funds, which he called “long-awaited”.
“Today the EU has made a long-awaited decision,” Zelensky said in his evening address. “This is a clear signal to Moscow that Europe will withstand and that Europe will not be broken,” he continued.
“The message is clear,” said French President Emmanuel Macron after the Brussels summit wrapped up. “Russia cannot count on any fatigue from Europeans in their support for Ukraine.”
Macron said the deal likewise sent a message to Washington -- where billions of dollars in aid are held up in Congress -- “that the European Union is here, committed and delivers.”
In an abrupt about-face at the start of the gathering, Orban agreed to drop his veto on the four-year package for Kyiv in the face of intense pressure from the EU’s other 26 leaders.
The Hungarian nationalist appeared to come away largely empty-handed -- securing only the promise of a possible review on the spending in two years.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz voiced hope that the EU decision could assist US President Joe Biden in convincing reluctant Republicans to pass Washington’s own $60-billion proposal for support for Ukraine.
“I hope that the message that we’re sending out today and the discussions we’re having today is helping him,” Scholz said.
The EU money will plug holes in the Ukrainian government’s budget to allow it to pay salaries and services, as its outgunned soldiers battle to hold back Moscow’s forces.
Orban -- Russia’s closest ally in the EU -- had sparked fury from his counterparts in the bloc by thwarting a deal on the aid in December.
Thursday’s talks were expected again to see hours of protracted political arm-wrestling but a deal was swiftly announced after Orban met beforehand with the leaders of Germany, France, Italy and the EU institutions.
“He gave some ground,” said one European diplomat.
“He saw that people were growing irritated, that there was a line not to cross.”
Orban had been accused of holding hostage Ukraine’s future in a bid to blackmail Brussels into releasing billions of euros for Hungary that have been frozen pending reforms by Budapest.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the answer was “a simple no” when asked if Hungary’s prime minister had won any promises to get the blocked financing from the EU.
“Hungary received no gift,” echoed France’s Macron.
In an apparent face-saving measure, Orban claimed he had instead got a guarantee that “Hungary’s money would not end up in Ukraine”
Orban’s opposition over Ukraine had exasperated EU leaders long frustrated at dealing with his role as a spoiler in the bloc.
Warning of growing “Orban fatigue” in Brussels, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said ahead of the summit that it was time for the Hungarian leader “to decide if he is a part of our community”.
Other leaders insisted that if Orban did not drop his opposition, they would club together as 26 countries to keep aid flowing to Ukraine’s government.
But with Kyiv facing possible budget shortfalls by spring, that option would have taken more time.
The latest EU showdown took place against the backdrop of swelling protests by European farmers, who clogged roads around the summit with 1,300 tractors in a show of strength, lighting fires and pulling down a city statue.
Von der Leyen announced that Brussels would put forward plans to ease rules and red tape criticised by farmers protesting across Europe.
Once the Ukraine aid was agreed, leaders turned more to the question of the future of EU military support for Kyiv.
Accusations have been levelled that key EU nations such as France, Italy and Spain are not pulling their weight on arming Ukraine.
Scholz, whose country is the largest European donor to Ukraine, has called for others to lay out their military support and do more to help Kyiv.
“In my opinion, not all member states are doing enough,” he said.