By Krisztina Than and Gabriela Baczynska
BUDAPEST/BRUSSELS (Reuters) -Hungary and the European Union’s executive locked horns on Wednesday over Ukraine’s bid to join the wealthy bloc, aggravating a dispute that could hold up Kyiv’s membership drive and was set to overshadow an EU summit.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban reaffirmed his opposition to offering neighbouring Ukraine fast-track accession at this week’s summit, saying parliament this would not serve the interests of Hungary or the 27-member EU.
Raising the stakes, the executive European Commission reminded Hungary it had still not taken the final step needed to unlock billions of euros in funds, frozen over concerns that Orban has damaged democratic checks and balances in his country.
Hungary, an EU member since 2004, later published further judicial reforms in its official journal. An EU official said the Commission was expected to unlock funds later in the day.
With both sides digging in their heels, Ukraine’s hopes of securing much-needed financial and military assistance to fight Russian forces hung in the balance.
Orban told parliament that starting talks with Ukraine to let it into the bloc one days was an idea that “at the moment is absurd, ridiculous and not serious.”
His comments contrasted sharply with remarks by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to the European Parliament.
“We must give Ukraine what it needs to be strong today so that it can be stronger tomorrow at the table when it is negotiating a long-lasting and just peace for Ukraine,” she said.
Orban has threatened to veto proposals to allow Kyiv to start accession talks and to receive substantial financial and military aid from the EU budget.
Kyiv wants to join the EU and build alliances with the West as it distances itself further from Moscow, while 50 billion euros ($54 billion) of economic support and 20 billion euros for Ukraine’s military would be vital for its war effort.
Ukraine is worried that Western military support may be dwindling nearly two years after Russia’s full-scale invasion, and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited Washington this week to try to press Kyiv’s case for more aid.
He said during a visit to Oslo that Kyiv had done what was asked of it on the path to EU accession talks, and that Hungary had no reason to block Ukraine’s accession drive.
“From our side we have been very constructive. We have done absolutely everything, we completed the recommendations of the European Union,” Zelenskiy said.
European Council President Charles Michel, who will chair the EU summit, said the 50-billion-euro funding for Ukraine was essential.
“We also have to agree to open accession negotiations with Ukraine, thereby giving it a necessary signal and bringing it yet closer to our European family,” he said in a letter.
EU leaders start convening in Brussels from Wednesday evening to first talk about EU accession bids by countries such as Bosnia, Georgia and Moldova that are tied to Ukraine.
The European Commission has proposed that this week’s summit take a decision to start EU membership talks with Ukraine once it meets four outstanding conditions set out previously. It has suggested this could happen in March.
Von der Leyen said laws Ukraine passed last week — including on national minorities, an issue raised by Hungary — cleared three of the remaining tasks, meaning only one was missing: a new lobbying law to rein in oligarchs.
Orban, who says the rights of tens of thousands of his ethnic kin living in western Ukraine are being denied, disputed this interpretation.
Orban also said the potential consequences of Ukraine’s EU membership on the bloc’s budget would be too heavy.
A recent internal EU report said that if current rules on farm subsidies, regional development and other spending applied to a union of 35 members, its budget would rise 21%, meaning an extra 256.8 billion euros ($271.9 billion) over seven years.
Some EU countries say that is not economically or politically acceptable and want rules changed before Ukraine is allowed to join, a process set to take many years.
($1 = 0.9273 euros)
(Reporting by Krisztina Than in Budapest and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels, additional reporting by Max Hunder in Kyiv and Nerijus Adomaitis in OsloWriting by Keith Weir, Editing by Timothy Heritage)