EU’s Dilemma: Dealing With Hungary’s Viktor Orban

Paris — Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, has long been a thorn in the European Union’s side, his many critics say, with attacks on press freedom, judicial independence, immigration and the LBGTQ community among others flouting the EU’s rule of law and democratic values.

Orban has a friendly relationship with Russian and Chinese leaders — even as ties between Brussels and Moscow are in a deep freeze, and those with China are tense.  Time and again, Hungary’s 60-year leader has obstructed or watered down a raft of EU sanctions against Russia, along with the bloc’s support for Ukraine.

But last week, Orban backed down, voting in favor of a $54 billion aid package for Ukraine, after what was reportedly extensive pressure and lobbying by the EU’s other 26 members. Still uncertain is whether the rare victory was a one-off, or will embolden the bloc’s leaders to keep their black sheep counterpart in line. Analysts say a tough approach is needed, as the EU faces new threats ahead of European Parliament and U.S. elections this year.

“I fear the EU member states drew the wrong lesson from this case,” said Daniel Hegedus, senior fellow for the German Marshall Fund policy institute, referring to the bloc’s win on Ukraine aid. “The widespread interpretation within EU capitals would be that at the end of the day Orban gives in, that it’s possible to forge a compromise with the Hungarian government.”

Rather than negotiating with Orban to reach “bad compromises,” Hegedus added, “the message should be clear [that] he’s just one step away from the red line. And if he crosses it, there will be far-reaching consequences.”

Right now, Hungary’s leader shows few signs of marching in lockstep with his mainstream EU counterparts. On Monday, his right-wing Fidesz party boycotted a Hungarian parliamentary session called to ratify EU member Sweden’s NATO bid.

On Wednesday, the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, announced it was beginning legal action against Hungary over new “sovereignty” legislation that critics see as a threat to political opponents and others — and which Brussels says violates the bloc’s democratic principles.

Over the years, the EU has fined and withheld funds from Hungary over similar concerns, with mixed success. Critics say Orban has been adept in securing concessions from the EU, in what the bluntest describe as blackmail.

Those talents have helped keep Hungary’s prime minister popular at home. Meanwhile, EU membership allows the small, central European country to hit well above its political weight, striking investment deals with major powers like China.

Isolated – for now

Yet today, Orban is more isolated than ever within the bloc, many say. His ideological ally, Poland’s populist and conservative Law and Justice party, lost October elections to a pro-EU opposition party. Unlike Orban, however, Law and Justice was staunchly anti-Russia.

Two other EU nationalist leaders — Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, and Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico — both voted in favor of the Ukraine aid package last week.

“Fico is not a follower of Orban when it comes to, for example, foreign policy,” says Zsuzsanna Vegh, a central Europe analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations research group, referring to the Slovak prime minister who has been seen as pro-Russian. “He has other considerations.”  

For her part, Meloni strongly supports both Ukraine and NATO.

Vegh and other analysts believe Hungary’s leader is looking ahead  — setting his sights on European Union parliamentary elections in June, and a U.S. presidential vote in November, when allies could come into power.  

Polls suggest right-wing, populist parties in Germany, France and elsewhere could score strongly in the EU legislative vote, which could influence the bloc’s foreign policy, including on Russia.

“Obviously, the new European Parliament will be less left-leaning and liberal minded, less progressive,” the German Marshall Fund’s Hegedus said. “The nationalist conservative forces will have a much larger representation.”

The European Commission is also set for renewal. The new right-wing governments in Europe — able to pick European commissioners — will help shape its makeup.

Orban also hopes former President Donald Trump, a NATO skeptic, will score a second term in office, many say.

“Prime Minister Orban can allow himself to play the long game,” Hegedus said. “And sit out uncomfortable periods, waiting for the better times when allies are coming into power in the European parliament and the United States — when the environment will be much more favorable for him.”  

Tougher response needed

Against this backdrop, he and others believe, mainstream Europe needs to toughen its response.

“None of us really knows why Orban is being such a disruptive, anti-EU, anti-Ukraine, anti-democratic force inside the EU,” said Judy Dempsey, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe.

“It’s puzzling. But what’s also puzzling is why [member states] didn’t take on these questions earlier on.”

“There was a lack of strategy, a lack of courage,” she added, “and just a lack of consensus to say to a member state, ‘Sign up to our values and democratic institutions — take them or leave them.’”

Beyond withholding funds, the EU has a last resort “nuclear option” that suspends voting rights of a member state, but only through a unanimous vote.

“It would be a very messy process, we know that Slovakia would block it,” fearing it could be vulnerable as well, said analyst Vegh. “But there’s a growing realization the situation is not sustainable.”

She believes the EU should stay tough with Hungary, as it was last week on Ukraine aid, and consider ways to shift to majority — rather than unanimous — voting on foreign policy matters. But the only way to really handle Orban, she believes, is through the ballot box.

“Ultimately, it’s up to Hungarians to change their government,” Vegh said. “As long as Orban is in power, the EU can expect the behavior he’s displayed for over a decade.”

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