Zelenskyy hails ‘victory’ as EU agrees to open membership talks for Ukraine


President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has hailed a “victory” for Ukraine and the European continent after European Union leaders agreed to open membership talks with his country despite months of opposition from Hungary about Kyiv joining.

The decision was announced on Thursday at a summit of the 27 EU countries, at which the bloc also agreed to open formal membership negotiations with Moldova.

European Council President Charles Michel, host of the summit, announced the agreement in a social media post, calling it “a clear signal of hope for their people and for our continent”.

Zelenskyy welcomed the decision as “a victory for Ukraine. A victory for all of Europe. A victory that motivates, inspires, and strengthens,” he said in a post on X.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said it was “a strategic decision and a day that will remain engraved in the history of our union”.

“These countries belong to the European family,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said.

Michel said the summit granted EU candidate status to Georgia and would also advance an EU bid by another hopeful – Bosnia and Herzegovina – once it reaches “the necessary degree of compliance” with criteria.

Hungary not in the summit room

EU diplomats said Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, was not in the summit room for the vote on Ukraine but knew and agreed other leaders would vote in his absence. For weeks, Orban had promised to block the deal, which on Thursday he called a “bad decision”.

“Hungary’s stance is clear: Ukraine is not prepared for us to start talks on EU membership,” he said, calling the decision “irrational” and “inappropriate”.

Hungary’s leader had gone into the summit also promising to deny Kyiv 50 billion euros ($54bn) in financial aid that the government desperately needs to stay afloat during its war with Russia.

“Twenty-six member states were adamant that this decision must be made, so Hungary decided that if 26 decide so, they should go on their own path and Hungary does not wish to participate in this bad decision,” Orban said.

The EU, whose members still cherish their independence on strategic and foreign affairs issues, generally works by consensus.

Negotiations continue on the aid for Ukraine, Orban said.

Earlier this week, Zelenskyy travelled to the US, where he lobbied for more American aid, but his request faces large hurdles in passing the US Congress.

Some EU leaders had warned earlier in the day that not agreeing to start negotiations with Ukraine would have been seen as a victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine launched its bid to become part of the EU after Moscow’s invasion in February 2022 and was officially named a candidate to join in June that year.

Fellow former Soviet republic and neighbour Moldova had applied at the same time as Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine has breathed new life into the EU’s stalled push to take on new members as the bloc looks to keep Russian and Chinese influence at bay.

In June 2022, the European Commission set Kyiv seven reform benchmarks to complete, including tackling corruption and curbing the power of its oligarchs, before talks should start.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denis Shmygal said the EU’s decision on Thursday showed that it “highly appreciated the reforms we have made in recent years and the implementation of all the recommendations of the European Commission”.

“A difficult path lies ahead. We are united and ready,” he said.

The talks themselves are likely to take years.

EU treaties oblige members to help “by all means in their power” another EU country that is victim of armed aggression on its territory. If Ukraine becomes an EU member while the war with Russia is ongoing, EU countries would have to respect that.

The EU would also acquire a long new border with Russia and Belarus with implications for security, migration and defence.__Al Jazeerq