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UPDATE 2-Hungary's Orban demands EU skip decision on Ukraine membership talks

(Rewrites, adding Orban letter)

By Gabriela Baczynska and Andrew Gray

BRUSSELS, Dec 4 (Reuters) -

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban demanded on Monday that a summit of European Union leaders next week avoid any decision on Ukraine's coveted goal of getting a green light for membership talks even as the country fights Russia's invasion.

Orban, who has maintained ties with Moscow even as the EU has imposed sweeping sanctions against Russia over its war in Ukraine, has been


for weeks that Kyiv is not ready to begin EU accession negotiations.

His stance is at odds with the view of the European Commission, the EU's executive body, which


last month that the bloc's leaders give Kyiv the thumbs-up to begin talks as soon as it has met some final conditions.

Any such decision, however, requires the unanimous support of EU leaders.

Orban put his demand in a letter on Monday to Charles Michel, president of the European Council of EU leaders. He also said the summit should not decide on a budget plan that includes 50 billion euros ($54.11 billion) in economic support for Kyiv.

"I respectfully urge you not to invite the European Council to decide on these matters in December as the obvious lack of consensus would inevitably lead to failure," Orban wrote.

"The European Council must avoid this counterproductive scenario for the sake of unity, our most important asset."

EU membership talks would be a major boost for Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that has been struggling to repel a full-blown Russian military invasion for nearly two years.

A spokesperson for Michel declined to comment on the letter. But other EU countries have made clear they do want to discuss Ukraine's membership prospects and the budget proposal at the summit, which takes place in Brussels on Dec. 14 and 15.

Diplomats from EU countries that strongly support Ukraine have voiced concern that a lack of agreement on membership talks and financial aid at the summit would be big political blow to Kyiv in the midst of war and be seen as a boost to Moscow.

But if Orban sticks to his position on membership talks and broader budget wrangles prevent a deal on the financial aid, diplomats say another summit early next year may be needed.


Envoys from the EU's 27 member countries will meet on Tuesday to start work on the written conclusions of the summit, which is also expected to discuss the membership prospects of Moldova, Georgia and Bosnia.

EU diplomats and officials said the first draft text prepared for discussion was bound to change.

Dated Dec. 4 and seen by Reuters on Monday, the draft text reads: "The European Council decides to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and with Moldova."

For Georgia, it said the Caucasus republic would get EU candidate status "on the understanding" that Tbilisi implements outstanding conditions.

For Bosnia, the initial draft stated the bloc was "ready to open EU accession negotiations... once the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria is achieved".

In what was widely seen as a bid to convince Budapest to back Ukraine, the Commission announced in recent days that it would unlock billions in EU aid to Hungary that had been frozen over rule of law concerns, including corruption.

Michel also travelled to Budapest last week but there was no immediate sign that he managed to sway Orban on Ukraine.

One EU diplomat said Michel left Budapest "empty-handed", while an official with the bloc said on Monday it was "very, very difficult" to secure among all 27 a deal to launch membership talks with Ukraine. ($1 = 0.9241 euros) (Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski, editing by Mark Heinrich and Marguerita Choy)