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Ukraine and EU push to start membership talks in June

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Brussels officials are pushing to begin formal negotiations over Ukraine joining the European Union as early as next month, according to people familiar with the matter. 

Behind the scenes, diplomats from the EU and from Kyiv are working intensively to try to persuade the Hungarian government to give its approval to opening talks on Ukraine’s accession. 

Five diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the aim is to kickstart the formal negotiations as soon as June 25.

Opening the talks would bring a morale boost to Ukraine, which has been fighting a full-scale Russian invasion for more than two years and has long aspired to join the Western bloc.

EU leaders told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last December they wanted Ukraine and Moldova to join their club, potentially bringing its membership to 29 countries. But the formal legal procedure to start membership talks has been held up by opposition from Hungary.

According to the diplomats, both Brussels and Kyiv are engaging in intensive bilateral diplomacy with Budapest to address concerns about Hungarian minorities in Ukraine. 

Following talks in April between Andriy Yermak, the powerful head of the Ukrainian president’s office, and Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, “the parties noted the positive dynamic of the dialogue,” according to a Ukrainian summary. Kyiv has responded to a list of 11 points laid out by Budapest and is awaiting Hungary’s response, per one diplomat.

One EU diplomat speculated that Hungary may want to get the matter of Ukrainian accession talks out of the way before it takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU in July. “There was a sense of not doing this before the [June 9 European Parliament] election because it could become an election issue,” said the EU diplomat, capturing the mood felt among many officials in Brussels.

“Now we’re looking for this slot in June. If you’re the Hungarians, you would rather have it [discussions around Ukraine’s membership] out of the way before the presidency.”

After EU leaders gave Kyiv a political thumbs-up, the next step in the accession process is to start formal talks via an intergovernmental conference with Ukraine. That would represent the opening of membership negotiations. 

In order for this to happen, EU countries have to agree on a so-called negotiation framework. The 27 capitals have been haggling over that document since the European Commission sent it to them in March. So far, the negotiations on a technical level are going well, two of the diplomats said, and they expect a new draft to be sent to EU ambassadors in the coming weeks so that they can hammer out the thorniest issues. 

Ukraine and its backers in the EU have been calling for the intergovernmental conference between Brussels and Kyiv to be held before Hungary takes over the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU on July 1.

EU leaders told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last December they wanted Ukraine and Moldova to join their club. | Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán has been the biggest internal obstacle to the EU’s ongoing support for Ukraine over the past two years. He has several times threatened to block decisions on EU funding for Kyiv as well as on accession negotiations, and sanctions against Russia. Before agreeing to the negotiating framework, Budapest wants more guarantees about improving the legal protection of minorities in Ukraine. 

At the same time, Hungary is keen on a successful presidency of the Council of the EU, the diplomats said. The Belgians, who currently have the rotating presidency, are also trying to convince Hungary this is their political interest as well, especially as Hungary could use one of several methods to block Ukraine’s accession later on if it wanted to.

Belgian officials have now penciled in June 25 for the intergovernmental conference (IGC), only days before Budapest takes over the presidency on July 1. But “as always, it is impossible to predict what Hungary will do until we hear from Orbán himself,” said one of the diplomats. 

A spokesperson for the Hungarian Permanent Representation to the EU said that Hungary’s focus is on the negotiating framework. “The first step is to find consensus there. It is premature to discuss the IGC dates before that.”

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