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On 14 December 2023, the European Union took the most pivotal decision of its 66-year history. It opened its door to a people under attack, a country invaded by a criminal aggressor. It cleared the path to a shared future.

By opening membership negotiations with Ukraine, the Union stands a little taller, sure of its purpose. Ukraine stands before a new home, bloodied and weary, but having completed the first part of a journey that began ten years ago, when its people stood together in the heart of Kyiv and raised the European flag, claiming it as their own.

That the decision arrives at a moment of doubt and gloom – of frustration on the battlefield and flagging support among allies – only heightens its significance. Not only for Ukraine and the European Union but also for the prospects of democracy around the world. The moment calls for celebration, a clear-eyed understanding of why we are here, but also a new and fearless resolution as we think about what comes next.

The Maidan wins again

Ukraine’s revolution of dignity began in the freezing air of its capital city. Between November 2013 and February 2014, more than a million mothers, fathers, and their children stood on the Maidan together. They protested corruption, ousted a brutal regime, and claimed a European future that would secure their country’s freedom.

If we stand together today, it is thanks to their vision and courage; thanks to their declaration of what it means to be European in the twenty-first century; and thanks to the millions of Ukrainians who have since fought to defend the Maidan’s promise, and who continue to fight to this day.

Putin loses again

Vladimir Putin lost on the Maidan. He lost again today.

His criminal invasion of Ukraine fatally exposed his own myth: the perennial complaint that Russia was always the victim, eternally misunderstood and encircled by hostile powers; a myth that denied the democratic choices of all those who, once free of the Soviet Union, found their own path and headed for Europe.

Putin’s other myth – a fiction that Russia and Ukraine are one people, Stalin’s famine a shared tragedy, and the modern Ukrainian nation merely a product of the Soviet era – cowers in solitude and shame, then dissolves in the light of day.

A Union stands on new ground

The European Union’s 82 billion euros of support for Ukraine – economic, financial, military, humanitarian – are unprecedented. Nearly independent of Russian gas in under two years, executing tough sanctions on 2,000 individuals and companies, freezing more than €300 billion of Russia’s central-bank assets, the Union has acted with speed and force.

More is needed, most urgently on the battlefield. The Union and the United States should immediately unfreeze the 300 billion euros and wire them to Kyiv as soon as possible – a small step for a Union that has already outgrown its soft-power tweed, tried on the light-weight armour and liked the feel of it.

Those on both sides of the Atlantic who sneer at the ‘bumbling bureaucracy’ of Brussels, its ‘gridlock’ and ‘navel-gazing’ – and seemingly forget that in the last 20 years the Union has already integrated 13 new member states, forged a strong new money for 20 of the family, and emerged from a pandemic with higher levels of public support and strong backing for Ukraine – will dismiss as mere ‘symbolism’ the opening of membership negotiations. They should look closer.

It is not here, at the start of negotiations, that the ground-breaking nature of Ukraine’s accession lies. It is not on the field of geopolitical action that the Union stands renewed and transformed, but beneath its own feet. Ukraine’s revolution of dignity and the war of resistance that defends its achievements, has created something new – an opportunity for the Union to root itself in a deeper legitimacy, in the choices made on the Maidan and what they told us about Europe.

The lesson of the Maidan was, and remains, how a people came together in the street; how they marched in the name of decency; how they organised as citizens to reject a regime as brutal as it was corrupt; how they fought to replace it with a new politics and the vital foundation of any human democracy: the rule of law; and how they carried the 12 stars next to their own flag and gave their life to defend it.

Here lies the new ground: a people’s choice to join the Union, from the street; a choice that is deeply entwined with their own sense of destiny, their own transition to a stronger democracy, their own rejection of everything that Putin stands for.

This is how Ukraine brings greater stability to our Union: by embedding itself in a community of law, joining its voice to our democratic institutions, rebuilding its economy on new principles, offering its children a promise of security and freedom – and the best way to repel Russia for years to come. A dense network of culture, values, traditions, and norms sends a signal to companies and investors: Ukraine is safe, ready, and surrounded by friends.

Ukraine is coming home. Not to a place buried in its past or a land that its people have lost, but to new ground and fresh soil, on which we will build together. This will be a shared home, where all citizens live in dignity and freedom, our human rights secured by the rule of law and a vibrant democracy, our prosperity guaranteed by a fair and sustainable economy.

Leaders must sideline Orbán

In the light of this vision, the actions of Viktor Orbán are intolerable. In the light of his relations with Vladimir Putin, they are tantamount to treason. Orbán has made himself and his country the enemy of Ukraine; he defies the most urgent and existential choice in the Union’s history. In a world of majority-voting, his obstruction might be forgotten already, but that is not where we are. And Ukraine cannot wait.

If Orbán has become intolerable, the Union’s only option is to make itself intolerable to him. He has not the courage to leave – as Putin needs NATO, so Orban needs the Union – but his right to vote can be removed, and this must happen now. Article 7 of the Union’s treaty, on the ‘clear risk of a serious breach’ of the Union’s values, provides for such an emergency.

To argue precisely how Orbán might be in breach of the Union’s values would be to seek legalistic refuge from a decision that can only be political. So let us be clear. Orbán degrades and damages the very reason for the Union’s existence and the reason Ukraine has chosen to join. In truth, he has already placed himself and his country outside the Union.

What are we waiting for?

The Union must defend itself

That question is just as urgent for our wider security. If the Union belatedly found unity and purpose once Putin had turned his 2014 invasion into a full-blown assault, it must now abandon the strategy of reaction and containment which served it so poorly after the Maidan. Nor will it be enough to expand military budgets – the Union’s member states are set this year to spend €270 billion, an increase of 12% on last year – vital though that is. For now, we cannot catch up with Moscow.

Instead, the Union must send the clearest message to Putin: we are able and ready to defend every inch of our territory. This will require that European troops are stationed wherever they are most needed – like this week’s announcement that Lithuania will host a permanent brigade of the German army – and on a scale that discourages any Russian attack.

The Union must communicate, at home and abroad, that Russia’s actions demand such a response. NATO’s support will always be welcome; the Union will never stand alone; but from today, the Union must be responsible for its own security. The more probable Trump’s return, the more urgent the shift in strategy.

The new year brings a reckoning

Our inability, as Europeans, to provide Ukraine with the next €50 billion of support would be the Union’s political failure. Our inability to supply Ukraine with the weapons it needs would be a strategic failure. Our inability to prepare for the prospect of a new Trump presidency – a violent fascism and the demise of NATO – would be a moral failure.

On all these questions hangs the future of a free Ukraine and a credible European Union.

Jonathan Hill