European Council President Charles Michel
European Council President Charles Michel makes a statment to the media regarding opening accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova during an EU summit in Brussels, on Thursday, December 14, 2023. Image Credit: AP

Brussels: European Union leaders unexpectedly agreed on Thursday to open membership talks with Ukraine, something Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for weeks had vowed to block.

EU diplomats and officials said Orban agreed to leave the room, knowing the other leaders would go ahead and vote on Ukraine.

Orban confirmed that he had abstained from the vote at the EU summit on what he called a "bad decision".

Such an unusual way to approve a decision - especially such a major one - is unheard of in Brussels, even for a place where diplomats have long been very creative about how to strike deals.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy welcomed the decision.

"This is a victory for Ukraine. A victory for all of Europe.

A victory that motivates, inspires, and strengthens," he said.

Ukraine badly needs support from its Western allies in its nearly two-year fight against Russia's invasion. Its counter-offensive has failed to make major gains and the Biden administration has so far been unable to get a $60 billion aid package for Ukraine through the U.S. Congress.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said it was "a strategic decision and a day that will remain engraved in the history of our Union." Orban had very different words to describe the decision.

"Hungary's stance is clear, Ukraine is not prepared for us to start talks on EU membership," he said, calling the decision to start talks "irrational" and "inappropriate." "But 26 member states were adamant that this decision must be made so Hungary decided that if 26 decide so, they should go on their own path and Hungary does not wish to participate in this bad decision," he said.

Talks to take years

The talks themselves are likely to take years.

Ukraine, which has a population of 44 million and is geographically bigger than any EU member, presents some unique challenges for admission to the 27-member bloc.

In intense diplomacy on the matter, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met with Orban before the summit, alongside von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel.

The European Commission on Wednesday restored Hungary's access to up to 10.2 billion euros in refunds for economic projects after finding it had fulfilled conditions on the independence of its judiciary.

Talks will continue at the summit on the bloc's multi-annual budget framework.

Michel said the European Council had also decided on Thursday to open accession negotiations with Moldova.

He went on to say the summit granted EU candidate status to Georgia and would also advance an EU bid by another hopeful - Bosnia - once it reaches "the necessary degree of compliance" with criteria.

Earlier in the day as the 27 EU leaders gathered for their last summit of the year, Orban insisted that the EU should not start membership talks with Ukraine. He was a lone hold-out at the summit.

Other EU leaders had warned that not agreeing to start negotiations would have been seen as a victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin.