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EU leaders isolated Orban to seal Ukraine aid deal

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By Julia Payne, Jan Strupczewski and Sabine Siebold

BRUSSELS, Feb 1 (Reuters) – To get Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to end his block on a 50 billion euro ($54.3 billion) aid package for Ukraine, other European Union leaders teamed up ahead of a crunch summit to deliver a stark message: You’re on your own this time.

The veteran Hungarian leader, who maintains close ties to Moscow despite its invasion of Ukraine, has been adept in the past at finding enough support among his peers to drive a hard bargain in EU negotiations.

But in the days and hours before Thursday’s special summit in Brussels, leaders – individually and in groups – told Orban that the other 26 members of the union were united behind the deal and he would face consequences if he continued to block, according to EU diplomats and officials.

Similar messages came from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and, importantly, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, an ideological ally of the populist Orban.

“I worked on trying to bring us to a point where we could not divide Europe at a time like this,” Meloni told reporters.

Ahead of the summit, some diplomats and officials ramped up pressure by spelling out via anonymous briefings and leaks what consequences Hungary might face, such as damage to its economy and a freeze on Budapest’s right to vote on EU decisions.

Others expressed doubts over whether the EU would have gone that far. But the reports added to the sense that leaders were ready to play hardball with Orban.

“We have been working for a week in a growing group of countries for a clear-cut position,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told reporters after the summit.

“We are to be 27, the whole community, and nobody is going to pay anybody for it (a deal). There will be no rewards, and nobody will be looking for rotten compromises.”

That message was also conveyed at an eve-of-summit dinner, attended by most of the EU’s leaders.

“The tensions were tangible during dinner yesterday, the talks tough…Everyone was angry at him,” said one diplomat.

“It reached boiling point,” said another.

Facing a united front, Orban was forced to abandon key demands – including an insistence that the four-year package should not be part of the EU’s collective budget and that he should have an annual right to block it.

Orban also received no assurances that the EU would release funds frozen due to concerns about democratic standards and the rule of law in Hungary, diplomats said.

Orban, however, claimed victory by declaring he had received assurances that none of the frozen money would go to Ukraine and that he had secured a “control mechanism” on the Ukrainian aid.

But diplomats from multiple EU countries said that the regular reviews of that aid would not allow any single member to veto it. Officials also said there had never been any plan for frozen cash earmarked for Budapest to be reallocated to Ukraine.

“He can now save face and say he won a veto right. But that has no teeth,” a third diplomat said. (Additional reporting by Alvise Armellini and Justyna Pawlak; Writing by Andrew Gray and Julia Payne; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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