EU leaders Friday, Dec. 15, pledged to find a way around Hungary's veto on a 50-billion-euro aid package for Ukraine, after Prime Minister Viktor Orban blocked the desperately needed support.
The 27 leaders will reconvene for an emergency summit early next year to try to hammer out a deal after intense wrangling at a two-day meeting in Brussels failed to budge Orban.
The failure to commit more aid to prop up Ukraine's budget over the next four years dealt a blow to Kyiv, even after the European Union took the symbolic step of agreeing to open membership talks.
"We expect all the necessary legal procedures to be completed in January 2024, which will allow us to receive the relevant funding as soon as possible," the Ukrainian foreign ministry said in a statement.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he was "reasonably optimistic" that an agreement could be reached with Orban at the next summit.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen vowed that her executive would use the time to ensure there is a "operational solution" to Orban's veto "whatever happens".
That could mean the other 26 EU countries that back giving the aid to Kyiv could club together without Hungary to come up with the aid outside the bloc's budget.
"We are working very hard, of course to have a result where there is an agreement of 27 member states," von der Leyen said. "But I think it is now also necessary to work on potential alternatives."
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said that "it looks like we'll just have to regroup next year, and come to an agreement then, or do a workaround."
Orban, in an interview with Hungarian state radio, linked the planned EU money for Ukraine to tens of billions of euros that Brussels has frozen for Hungary because of democratic backsliding and corruption concerns.
"This is a great opportunity for Hungary to make it clear that it should get what it deserves," Orban said. "We want to be treated fairly, and now there is a good chance that we can assert this.
- Kremlin praises Orban -
The hold-up from Orban -- Russia's closest ally in the EU -- comes as Ukraine is desperately seeking to change the narrative that Western backing is waning nearly two years into Moscow's invasion.
Russia praised Hungary for blocking the aid, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying Budapest "in contrast to many European countries, firmly defends its interests, which impresses us".
But Moscow was far more critical of the decision by the EU to open accession talks with Ukraine and fellow ex-soviet state Moldova, and make Georgia a formal candidate to join.
"This is absolutely a politicised decision -- the EU's desire to show support to these countries in this way. But certainly, such new members can actually destabilise the EU," Peskov said.
"Everything is being done to annoy Russia and antagonise these countries towards Russia," he said.
The approval of the membership talks came after Orban -- who had threatened to stop them -- took the highly unusual step of leaving the negotiating room to let the other EU leaders vote it through.
Orban's absence for the issue raised alarm bells for some EU leaders, worried such tactics could be replicated in for other thorny decisions, weakening bloc unity.
"I think a negative precedent is being set," said Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides.
- 'Very far' -
But Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, who did not attend the knife-edge summit, called the membership talks decision "a victory that motivates, inspires, and strengthens".
The White House -- which faces opposition from US Republicans to support Ukraine -- hailed the "historic decision".
Despite the euphoric rhetoric, the agreement to open membership negotiations with Kyiv does not mean that Ukraine will be joining the EU any time soon.
"We are very far from effective enlargement to Ukraine," said French President Emmanuel Macron.
Before the talks can be launched, EU states must agree on a negotiating framework -- giving Orban ample opportunity to stall the process again.
"Now the reality will come," warned populist and Orban ally Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico.
"If the European Union feels that Ukraine is not ready, it will be able to slow down this process, or it will be able to stop it altogether."
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