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How Hungary Could Hinder Ukraine’s Path to EU Membership

  • Ukraine and Moldova are set to begin EU accession talks on June 25, with Intergovernmental Conferences scheduled in Luxembourg.
  • Hungary has raised concerns regarding the protection of national minority rights in Ukraine, delaying the process briefly.
  • A compromise was reached on June 14, paving the way for the start of negotiations, with the European Commission tasked with monitoring Kyiv's implementation of minority rights reforms.

Everything is set up for Ukraine and Moldova to officially open EU accession talks on June 25 in Luxembourg, with the bloc keen to hold what are known in EU parlance as Intergovernmental Conferences (IGC) to mark the occasion.

The European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, presented an oral update on both countries to representatives from the 27 EU member states on June 7 in Brussels. According to the update, later distributed in written form to EU capitals and obtained by RFE/RL, the two countries had completed all the reforms that were required of them, which largely dealt with rule-of-law issues.

In the case of Moldova, all of the 27 EU member states agreed with the assessment that the country had completed its reforms. For Ukraine, 26 countries agreed, with one exception: Hungary.

Budapest has continued to argue that Ukraine still hasn't done enough to safeguard the rights of its ethnic Hungarian minority in the country. Ensuring the rights of national minorities was one of the four conditions Ukraine had to fulfill.

For a moment, it looked like no IGC would take place at the end of the month for either country. (Their paths are coupled in this process.) What needs to happen for the two IGCs to go ahead in June is for EU members to unanimously agree on Ukraine's and Moldova's respective negotiation frameworks, which will essentially plot the path of the enlargement road ahead. EU ambassadors were hoping to adopt these frameworks on June 12, but Hungary insisted it wasn't ready to sign off. There was, however, a late reprieve on June 14 with a compromise that Budapest, the rest of the EU, and Ukraine could all live with.

Deep Background: To understand the process, it makes sense to start with what was said in the oral update on Ukraine's progress regarding national minorities.

Firstly, the written version of the document outlines what Kyiv did in early 2024 to comply with the European Commission's requirements, including adopting a methodology for the use of national minority languages, producing a road map on education for minorities, and the creation of a Council of Public Associations of National Minorities.

The update also notes that Kyiv recently set up a financial compensation mechanism for translations of election material between minority languages and Ukrainian. The document notes that Ukraine has "enacted several laws and taken implementing measures in order to address the remaining [European Commission's] Venice Commission recommendations from June 2023 and October 2023 linked to the law on national minorities and to the laws on state language, media, and education."

It then concluded that "while noting that the Venice Commission has not pronounced itself on the follow-up given to its recommendation, the commission considers that Ukraine has taken all the necessary measures. This step is thus completed."

Drilling Down

  • According to many accounts of the meeting on June 7, representatives from all countries present gave their clear support for the commission's assessment on Ukraine and asked that the framework be quickly adopted so that the IGC can go ahead on June 25. Hungary, however, remained a stickler, mentioning 11 issues that Budapest said Ukraine hasn't addressed.
  • Broadly speaking, those issues can be boiled down to three main areas: restoring the status of the national minority school system; restoring the right to speak minority languages when dealing with state authorities; and restoring the right to political representation on a regional as well as national level.
  • What Hungary essentially wants is to go back to what Ukrainian legislation looked like before 2015, when Kyiv started amending laws on national minorities and state languages. Those amendments, which were driven by a desire to reduce the amount of Russian spoken, led to the increased usage of Ukrainian in public institutions, such as schools.
  • In this respect, Budapest wanted to add two amendments to the negotiation framework and in the opening statement of the potential IGC. First, Budapest wanted it noted in both documents that Ukraine needs to produce an action plan dedicated to the protection of the rights of national minorities. And second, Budapest asked for written references in the negotiation framework to two documents from 1991: the Treaty On The Foundations Of Good Neighborly Relations And Cooperation, signed by Ukraine and Hungary in 1991; and the declaration on the principles of cooperation between Hungary and Ukraine in guaranteeing the rights of national minorities.
  • In the compromise text, agreed on June 14, the action plan required by Hungary is included along with a statement that "the right of persons belonging to national minorities should be protected, in line with the constitution of Ukraine. Furthermore, Ukraine is expected to implement relevant bilateral agreements with EU member states."
  • Also noted in the compromise document was that the European Commission will monitor Kyiv's implementation of minority rights reforms and report regularly to EU member states.
  • This might not seem like too much to ask for, but other member states are unhappy that bilateral issues are being dragged into the enlargement negotiations at such an early stage. They fear -- with some foundation -- that Budapest can veto every step of the way by suggesting that Kyiv isn't protecting national minorities enough.
  • Bilateral issues between a member state and a candidate country often slow down the EU accession process. Just look at Bulgaria's refusal to sign off on North Macedonia opening accession talks due to Skopje not amending its constitution to reflect Bulgarians as a founding people.
  • On the other hand, many diplomats I spoke to are at least happy that the concrete references to specific bilateral treaties between Hungary and Ukraine are gone from the document. They also noted that a compromise on this issue always looked possible, especially as Hungary is taking over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, one of the main decision-making bodies of the bloc, on July 1 and is expected to not keep Ukraine high on the agenda for the next six months. So, there was pressure to finalize everything by the end of June.
  • There is now just one small hurdle that needs to be cleared before the IGC can go ahead: a debate and vote on the frameworks in the Dutch parliament on June 20. (The Netherlands is the only country taking this step.) This should be a formality with a pro-Ukraine majority in parliament, but since the Dutch general elections in November 2023, lawmakers have become more enlargement skeptic.


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