EU’s Semantic Gymnastics Helped Ukraine Get The Aid – Analysis


By Rikard Jozwiak

(RFE/RL) —  In the end it went surprisingly quick and painlessly: there was unanimity among EU leaders already well before noon on February 1 that the bloc will provide Ukraine with 50 billion euros ($54 billion) of grants in loans for the next four years. It’s a significant signal, as the U.S. Congress has so far failed to agree on more Ukraine funding and Kyiv has indicated that it will be running out of money soon.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had spectacularly vetoed a deal at a Brussels summit in December. On the surface it seems that he lost this time around, underestimating the other 26 member states’ resolve, and getting very little out of it. He will not get any annual vetoes for the Ukrainian money for the disbursements between 2024 and 2027, he won’t see any money meant for Budapest that the European Commission has frozen over rule-of-law concerns in the country, and he didn’t even get a prolongation in order to secure some of those funds in the future. The EU money will start going to Ukraine already in March.

But take a closer look and it isn’t so entirely black and white as it may seem.

The easiest way to start is to look at the EU summit conclusions that were agreed in the morning. This, after some intense discussions during an informal dinner among some of the leaders in Brussels the night before, smaller huddles among groups of them after that dinner, and wider consultations taking place in the morning before the summit started.

There were two paragraphs that were crucial to secure the achieved unanimity, following key contributions from Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, French President Emmanuel Macron, and European Council President Charles Michel. A trio of leaders that Orban has a close rapport with, according to sources familiar with the talks.

The first of those two paragraphs says that “on the basis of the [European] Commission annual report on the implementation of the Ukraine facility, the European Council will hold a debate each year on the implementation of the facility with a view to providing guidance. If needed, in two years the European Council will invite the commission to make a proposal for review in the context of the new MFF (multi-financial framework — the long-term EU budget).”

Here, it’s clear that Hungary didn’t get the annual vetoes it had indicated that it wanted. An annual report by the European Commission is not a veto, nor is an annual debate among leaders in the European Council. The last sentence about the review is quite an interesting one as well. In order to trigger a review, all 27 EU member states must agree. So, some of Ukraine’s greatest friends, like the Baltic states, can simply prevent a review if they feel it isn’t necessary. And then there is the word “review” in itself.

Does it entail an actual veto? Maybe Hungary can interpret it as a veto and others won’t. The European Union is an expert in semantic gymnastics to get a compromise. Things simply mean different things to different member states.

As an anecdote to illustrate this, a few diplomats pointed at the agreement the EU struck at the end of 2022 regarding the price cap on Russian oil. It was settled at $60 at the time and even though some hawkish member states wanted a lower figure, they were won over by the promise to hold reviews every other month, probably thinking that the review actually meant that there would be proper negotiations (with potential vetoes) in order to lower the cap further. Nothing like that has happened and the price cap remains at $60 to this day. A review in this case meant just regular updates and not much more.

So, this paragraph doesn’t seem to give Hungary too much. But then there is the second one, a single sentence in the 12-page summit conclusions that states, “the European Council recalls its December 2020 conclusions on the application of the conditionality mechanism.” Quite cryptic and open to interpretation. The conditionality mechanism was the very rule change agreed for the EU budget of 2020-27 to withhold money for member states if there was a fear that money was being misused — exactly what the European Commission has done with Hungary.

Now, how to read this? One, perhaps the most obvious one, is that it is a hint from the member states to the commission to unfreeze some of the 10 billion euros held back from Hungary. Or at least to interpret the strict milestones that Hungary has to fulfill to get the money a bit more leniently? Or it could mean that the conditionality mechanism should be used more sparingly in the future?

Don’t rule out that some of the cash will start flowing to Hungary in the spring, especially since the European Parliament, one of Orban’s fiercest critics, will soon go from legislative mode to election mode as the June European elections approach. Attention will simply turn elsewhere.

And then there is the stuff that remains unwritten. There’s no concrete evidence yet to prove it right or wrong, for that matter. Ukraine’s enlargement process might be further slowed down — something that Budapest is interested in. It could be that the intergovernmental conference for Ukraine that would mark the official opening of accession talks won’t happen in March as Kyiv certainly hoped, but after the parliamentary elections in the summer or even in the autumn.

And then there is the pure PR. Listen to the doorstep comments of the leaders ahead of the summit and the two most spoken words were “Viktor” and “Orban.” Orban claimed victory by saying, “Hungary’s funds will not end up in Ukraine and we have a control mechanism at the end of the first and second year.”

And that message might be appealing for more Europeans than just Hungarians. The same day as the summit, thousands of farmers descended on the EU capital, many on tractors, to demonstrate against rising production costs, among other things. In more than one sense. It’s clear that crucial EU elections are just around the corner.

  • Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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