EU drama: Ukraine, migration and more 


All 27 EU leaders landed in Brussels yesterday for the mid-term review of the bloc’s seven-year budget amid heightened tensions between some members.  

While a budget meeting might not sound exciting (because it’s not), this one is spicier than normal because it involves 27 world leaders and fairly high stakes.

The main (but not only) sticking point this time around has been Ukraine.

  • 26 EU leaders wanted to open talks with Ukraine for it to join the EU, a mostly symbolic move given the talks can be endless (just ask Turkey).
  • But a 27th leader (Hungary’s Victor Orbán) has long objected, citing Ukraine’s corruption and limits on minority languages (like Hungarian). He’s also been irked by the EU’s own criticism of Hungarian democracy, and maintained relatively cosy ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Big EU decisions on topics like bloc membership usually require unanimous agreement among all 27 leaders. So what happened?

  • Ukraine passed bills addressing some of Hungary’s concerns last week
  • Hungary passed a bill on some of the EU’s concerns this week, and
  • The EU then unblocked billions in frozen funds for Hungary.

They’re all denying any horse-trading here, but the net result is that Orbán then felt comfortable enough to abstain: he ducked outside the meeting room just as the other 26 leaders moved to approve the talks with Ukraine yesterday.

So the EU got to signal some desperately-needed support for Ukraine, and Orbán got billions in EU funding while still looking like he held the line

But hours later (into this morning), Orbán delivered another twist when he blocked a $55B aid package for Ukraine after objecting to a non-member getting that much EU funding. EU leaders are hopeful they can get him over the line early in the new year, or they’ll help Ukraine outside formal EU processes.

And this was just part of the meeting’s agenda. Other big items included:

  • Migration:Irregular arrivals via the Mediterranean are up 60% this year, and
  • The economy:The bloc is still teetering on the edge of recession.

Adding even more drama is the upcoming EU parliamentary election in June, with recent national results hinting at real eurosceptic vibes among voters.

INTRIGUE’S TAKE

Diplomats often get formal training in negotiation, and some of our core negotiation principles were first popularised in Herb Cohen’s legendary 1982 best-seller, ‘You Can Negotiate Anything’. It’s worth a read.

One key takeaway is that, no matter how intractable the situation, there’s almost always a possible “win-win” (incidentally, a term also popularised in Cohen’s book).

And this week’s EU membership decision on Ukraine really looks like a classic example: everyone takes a win, and the mechanics of the decision are arranged so that Orbán never technically has to cross his own red line.

But if it was this hard to get agreement on what’s essentially a symbolic step for the EU, a $55B aid package in the new year feels like more of a stretch.

Also worth noting: 

  • Fun fact: a draft budget proposal is sometimes referred to as a “negobox” in EU bureaucratic slang.  
  • In response to the EU’s decision on membership talks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted that “right now in Ukraine, a lot of us are feeling really uplifted, and it’s a big deal”.
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