BRUSSELS — About three hours into deadlocked discussions among EU leaders on Ukraine’s accession to the bloc, the German chancellor made a sudden proposal to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán: Go grab a coffee outside, perhaps.
If Orbán really wasn’t willing to agree to opening enlargement talks with Kyiv, Chancellor Olaf Scholz suggested, he should consider leaving the room briefly. Scholz addressed the recommendation to the Hungarian leader in front of his EU counterparts gathered around the circular negotiation table at Thursday’s leaders’ summit.
The idea, Scholz said, would allow the 26 EU leaders who remained to approve Ukraine’s road to accession with the required unanimity — which EU rules say is also fulfilled if one leader is absent — while Orbán could still say he hadn’t voted in favor.
After the two men spoke on the sidelines, Orbán left the room, paving the way for the EU’s historic decision to open accession negotiations with Ukraine after days of uncertainty given Orbán’s vehement opposition.
Scholz’s remarkable strategy, which was described to POLITICO by three officials with knowledge of the events, raised eyebrows in Brussels and beyond. The chancellor’s performance on the European stage since he was appointed in 2021 has been a disappointment so far, with critics noting his lack of tactical negotiating and communication skills compared to former Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The idea that a EU leader had to leave the room to be unanimous is highly unusual. In fact, EU officials and diplomats at the summit on Thursday could not say if Scholz’s move had ever been used before.
“He used an old trick from his time with the Young Socialists,” said one official at the EU summit, referring to the youth organization of Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) in which the chancellor served as deputy chairman during the 1980s. The official, like others quoted, was granted anonymity to speak about the ongoing EU summit discussions.
One official said Orbán’s position began to waver during a joint Thursday breakfast discussion with Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, EU Council President Charles Michel, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. During the meal, Orbán struggled to provide plausible arguments for his claim that Ukraine suffered from rule-of-law deficits that left it unready for accession, the official said.
Undermining Orbán’s claim that the Commission had erred in assessing Ukraine’s reform progress was the fact that the commissioner responsible for enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, was a close political ally from Hungary handpicked by Orbán. A spokesperson for Orbán could not be reached for a comment.
Hours later, at the summit, EU leaders continued to grill the Hungarian prime minister over his continued refusal to open talks with Ukraine.
“After a few hours in which the other 26 leaders had debunked all of Orbán’s arguments, Scholz came just at the right time with his proposal,” one EU diplomat said. “It came in handy.”
After EU leaders announced the decision to open accession talks, Orbán said in a Facebook post: “Hungary does not want to be part of this bad decision!”
By that time, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had celebrated the announcement on X, saying: “I thank Chancellor Scholz for his personal efforts and Germany for its leadership.”
Pro-Ukrainian accounts on X, which in the past had pilloried Scholz for his enduring hesitance to support Ukraine with arms such as tanks, were also full of praise.
“Sorry for all the times we made fun of you Olaf,” wrote blogger Saint Javelin. “You are a true friend.”