BRUSSELS, Sept 13 (Reuters) – EU chief Ursula von der Leyen set out a vision on Wednesday of an enlarged European Union that would include Ukraine – but Kyiv still has a way to go to get the green light for membership talks, with Hungary seen as a potential block.
EU countries are due to decide in December whether to allow Ukraine to begin accession negotiations – a move that would require unanimous backing of all the 27 countries in the bloc.
European Commission President von der Leyen told the European Parliament that Ukraine had already made “great strides” since being designated a membership candidate last year, even as it fights to repel Russia’s invasion.
But candidate countries have to meet a string of political and economic criteria to begin membership talks – and must fulfil more stringent conditions on democracy, the rule of law and economic standards – before they can actually join the EU.
The European Commission said in June Kyiv had completed two of seven steps on the path to talks but needed to do more on court reform, fighting corruption and money laundering, curbing oligarchs, and improving the treatment of minorities.
EU diplomats and officials say the bloc’s two heavyweights, France and Germany, will likely back the start of talks if the Commission gives a positive assessment. Its report is expected in October but may be delayed to November, officials say.
But Hungary will be a tougher nut for Kyiv to crack, diplomats and officials say, particularly when it comes to the treatment of ethnic Hungarians inside Ukraine.
“For Ukraine, the biggest obstacle is Hungary and the discussion around national minorities,” a senior EU diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “Politically, that will be the most important obstacle.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban cultivates warmer ties with Moscow than many of his EU peers and has repeatedly locked horns with Kyiv, including over the right of ethnic Hungarians to learn in their native language after Ukraine passed a 2017 law restricting the use of minority languages in schools.
Budapest has also clashed with Kyiv over the inclusion of Hungary’s OTP Bank (OTPB.BU) on a Ukrainian blacklist of companies accused of financially supporting Russia’s war – an accusation that both Hungary and the bank deny.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said in July that the next assessment of Ukraine’s accession process must include an examination of whether the rights of the Hungarian community were being upheld, according to a media report.
Hungarian officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Getting the go-ahead for EU membership talks would be widely seen as a victory for Kyiv in its conflict with Moscow as it seeks not only to repel Russian forces but also to free itself from Russian geopolitical influence and bind itself into the West.
Membership talks usually take many years and would be particularly complex with Ukraine, as a relatively poor country still at war and with a population of more than 40 million that would upend the economic and political balances within the EU.
On Wednesday, von der Leyen outlined a vision of a European Union that would include not only Ukraine, but also Moldova and countries of the Western Balkans.
“In a world where size and weight matter, it is clearly in Europe’s strategic and security interests to complete our Union,” she said.
Some officials expect the Commission to give a positive recommendation on membership talks for Ukraine but possibly add conditions, for example to push for tighter asset declaration rules for public officials as part of a crackdown on corruption.
On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy vetoed an asset declaration law passed by his parliament, demanding lawmakers redo it to ensure broader and quicker transparency.