The 26 European Union member states are determined to overcome Hungary's objections and move forward with several key priorities for Ukraine in one of the most "complex, complicated, and difficult European Councils" in the last years, senior EU officials told journalists on Dec. 13.
Ahead of the Dec. 14-15 summit, the European decision-makers will rely on strategic and practical arguments to persuade Hungary to allow for opening membership negotiations for Ukraine and approving the 50-billion-euro ($54 billion) aid package the EU officials called "existential."
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has friendly ties with Russia, has opposed including the $54 billion package to finance Ukraine's recovery in the EU's budget and said that Ukraine is "light years" away from EU membership.
The four-year package is designed to help Ukraine's "recovery, reconstruction, and modernization" from 2024, but requires approval from all EU heads of state.
"We will fight like street brawlers with everything we've got to get as far as we can in delivering [Ukraine] the funding it needs and the European prospective [Ukraine] needs," one senior official said.
One senior EU official said that much work remains to be done in achieving unity, and European decision-makers are looking at a number of levers as they seek to persuade Hungary during the EU Council.
These range from political and economic decisions on the Western Balkans to the funds requested by Hungary, the senior official said.
Since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Orban has repeatedly obstructed EU support for Kyiv, opposed sanctions against Russia, and now threatens to thwart Ukraine's EU aspirations.
Ukrainian and Western leaders and officials are working until the final hour to attempt to sway Orban's position, as Budapest provides signals it may be willing to compromise, for a price.
Hungary has been seeking to unblock 10.2 billion euros ($11 billion) in EU cohesion funds that have remained frozen due to concerns from Brussels about the deteriorating rule of law in Hungary.
The European Commission decided on Dec. 13 to unblock the sum, part of $23.7 billion in EU cohesion funds, meant to help poorer EU member countries invest in their economies.
The Guardian reported earlier on Dec. 8 that the EU was set to unfreeze the funds due to judicial reforms that Hungary implemented. Unnamed diplomats told the Guardian that the release was unrelated to Budapest's "blackmailing" on Ukraine but admitted the timing was "unfortunate."
An advisor to Orban indicated on Dec. 12 that Hungary would be willing to support the Ukraine funding package if its funds were unfrozen, but that Budapest wants the entire 22 billion euros.
"Hungary's EU funding and Ukraine's financing are two separate issues," Balazs Orban, of no relation to the prime minister, told Bloomberg. "But if the EU insists that Ukraine's financing should come from an amended EU budget, then the two issues become linked."
The EU's top diplomat Josep Borrell, however, told the Kyiv Independent that the negotiations are "not a matter of buying a vote."
"It's a political discussion, it's not just a transactional process," Borrell said. "It's not a bazar."
Zelensky said on Dec. 13 that he asked Orban to "tell me one reason" why EU accession talks should not begin with Ukraine. "I'm still waiting for (an) answer," Zelensky said.
Hungary has often claimed it is concerned about the protection of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine, which is thought to number around 80,000.
Budapest is particularly opposed to a 2017 Ukrainian language law that requires at least 70% of education above fifth grade to be conducted in Ukrainian. Kyiv argues that it does not intend to limit minority rights, but wants to ensure that all Ukrainian citizens can speak the national language.
Representatives of the Hungarian community in Ukraine sent a letter to Orban on Dec. 11, appealing to Orban not to block Ukraine's EU accession and arguing that Ukraine has made changes to its law that "significantly reflects the interests of national minorities and enjoys our full support."
"We believe that Ukraine deserves to be supported in its efforts in this direction," the letter read.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also acknowledged Ukraine's reform efforts, telling the European Parliament on Dec. 13 that "our enlargement report from last month showed clear progress on all steps that we had identified."
Kyiv has fulfilled "90% of the necessary steps that were set out last year," Borrell told journalists in Brussels. This is a "record" in terms of progress in "such a short period of time."
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez echoed the sentiment. "I kicked off the Spanish presidency (of the EU Council) with a trip to Kyiv, and I hope to close it with the opening of accession negotiations with this country now that the European Commission’s report is known," Sanchez told the European Parliament.
The EU debates are happening as the turmoil regarding aid for Ukraine continues in the U.S.
Though U.S. President Joe Biden allocated $200 million in drawdown funds for Ukraine on Dec. 12, further aid continues to be uncertain as Republicans in the Senate block a bill that contains $61 billion in aid for Ukraine.
"President Biden has gone out today and said 'We, United States, will support Ukraine for as long as we can.' The current intention is to make sure that we, the European Union, will be standing with Ukraine for as long as it takes," one senior official said.
Borrell told journalists that he recognized the urgency of the situation. In the face of Russia's invasion, EU member states "have to continue supporting Ukraine by all means," Borrell said.
"I am strongly convinced that what you (Ukraine) are facing is an existential threat for you as people, as Ukrainians, as a state, but it is also for us, for the European Union," Borrell said.
Orban appears to remain unconvinced and claimed Ukraine's membership of the EU would instead pose a threat.
"Ukraine's swift accession to the European Union would have devastating consequences for European farmers, the EU’s budget and European security," Orban posted on X late on Dec . 13.
"It serves the best interests of neither Hungary, nor the European Union, therefore we cannot support it."