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EU summit begins with future funding for Ukraine in doubt

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A two-day summit that begins today in Brussels, Belgium, focuses on Ukraine. Members of the European Union face big decisions on aid for Ukraine and EU membership for the country. All 27 member nations would have to agree on any action, and at least one leader says Ukraine is not their problem. NPR's Joanna Kakissis is in Kyiv. Hey there, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: How are Ukrainians where you are viewing this meeting that does not include them, but is all about them?

KAKISSIS: So, Steve, everyone I speak to in Ukraine is worried that the country is going to run out of money next year and won't be able to keep fighting off Russian forces. In the U.S., congressional Republicans are blocking new aid to Ukraine. So today, the EU, Ukraine's other major ally - it's considering a $54 billion package of military and economic funding for the country. And that's a lifeline. EU leaders are also talking about Ukraine's bid for EU membership, and that's been a major goal of Ukraine for years. Ukrainians see their future as a Western-style liberal democracy. And you'll remember that a decade ago, Ukrainians brought down a president who tried to move the country closer to Russia.

INSKEEP: Yeah, that's part of the conflict here, is where does Ukraine lean? In whose orbit is Ukraine? But where does their application to join the EU stand?

KAKISSIS: So the EU has already granted Ukraine candidate status, but the next step is to authorize membership negotiations. I spoke about this with Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze. She's a member of Ukraine's parliament and leads the committee on Ukraine's integration into the EU. She told me that the Russian invasion has not stopped Ukraine from passing reforms which are needed to fulfill EU requirements for membership.

IVANNA KLYMPUSH-TSINTSADZE: We are working so hard in order to deliver. We are working on the backdrop of the most brutal war that is happening on this continent since the Second World War, and I think that that has to receive its recognition in the EU.

KAKISSIS: And for that to happen, the leaders of all EU member nations must agree. And right now, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban - he's threatening to veto both the aid and the opening of membership negotiations.

INSKEEP: OK. A man seen as an illiberal leader of Hungary, who's made the country less democratic - why is he against Ukraine?

KAKISSIS: Well, Viktor Orban has said that he believes Ukraine is a hopelessly corrupt country that has no place in the EU. And he has also said that sending military aid to Ukraine only prolongs this war - the implication being that Ukraine should accept losing the territory it's lost to Russia. Orban's position makes sense when you know a little bit more about him. He is considered the Kremlin's closest ally in the EU, and Orban has clashed repeatedly with EU leadership who say his government doesn't protect rule of law and human rights. And as a result, the EU withheld more than $22 billion in development funds from Hungary. But late last night, the EU released about half of that money in the hopes Orban might at least approve the aid package to Ukraine.

INSKEEP: Ah well, all politics is local, so the money goes to his locality. But what happens if...

KAKISSIS: (Laughter) That's right.

INSKEEP: ...The membership talks are delayed?

KAKISSIS: So it would be a major blow because this is a very sensitive and scary time for Ukraine - a time when the country's two most important allies, the United States and the European Union, appear to be wavering. And Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, the lawmaker working on Ukraine's European integration - she says Russia is watching closely.

KLYMPUSH-TSINTSADKZE: The stakes are extremely high, not exclusively for the Ukrainian people. It's not only for us, having this ray of light at the end of the tunnel. It is about rule of law, prosperity, democracy, peace and security.

KAKISSIS: She says that if the EU hesitates on Ukraine, the Kremlin will just sense weakness.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joanna Kakissis, thanks.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.