EU’s Hungarian problem looms ahead of Ukraine vote

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European Union leaders are meeting in Brussels on Thursday, hoping to approve a historic multibillion-euro fund for Ukraine that will help keep the country afloat for the next four years, no matter what. what will happen on the battlefield or if the US Congress threatens to reduce its support.

The only thing standing in their way is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Again.

A compromise with Mr Orban, who demanded an annual veto on spending, was reached. remained elusive, which means that the unanimity required for such an agreement between the 27 EU states still seems out of reach. If Mr Orban continues to stand in the way, EU leaders have made clear they are prepared to do whatever is necessary to support Ukraine and circumvent him – or even punish him.

Yet even if the remaining 26 leaders are not forced to move forward without Mr Orban, a larger issue now comes to the fore: what will the EU do about the Hungarian problem?

For a small country that accounts for just 1 percent of the bloc’s economic output, Hungary is a real headache.

It has been at odds with the EU for years over its transgressions of EU norms and values ​​relating to the rule of law. And this has systematically slowed down, curtailed or thwarted a whole series of European ambitions, including certain sanctions against Russia as well as Sweden’s NATO membership.

But Hungary’s role as a disruptor in the EU’s efforts to unite behind Ukraine, and Mr. Orban’s personal alliance with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, are now being seen by his peers as a threat to the security of Europe. And it is one, they say, that they will not tolerate.

That makes the current standoff with Mr. Orban qualitatively different from those that preceded it, and a confrontation that could portend a deeper rift.

Despite growing threats and reprimands from his European partners, Mr. Orban has persisted in taking his country deeper into an illiberal path.

Although this course has given the excessive notoriety of Mr. Orbanit is also becoming more and more expensive for his country.

Hungary’s legal discrimination against LGBTQ people, dismantling of anti-corruption structures and misuse of the justice system have led the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, to freeze tens of billions of euros in funds until ‘for Hungary to make changes.

Hungarian officials tried to convince the commission that reforms were underway, and they implemented some changes in exchange for freezing the funds. But every time the bloc has had to make a decision that requires unanimity – notably when it comes to supporting Ukraine and sanctioning Russia – Mr Orban has seized the opportunity to use his veto. as leverage to try to obtain concessions.

There is also a political advantage for Mr Orban at home. Since his election in 2010, the bloc has played a determining role in his political identity. He portrayed him as the “woke globalist” bogeyman from whom he protects Hungary.

The EU has become a scapegoat for Hungary’s economic, demographic and other problems – and an easy punching bag that Mr Orban uses to try to position himself as the leader of a pan-European movement in defense of national sovereignty and traditional values.

But the EU also has plenty of leverage, and it will seek to use them all to find a compromise with Orban at Thursday’s summit.

Few countries have benefited as much from EU funding as Hungary. The bloc has been Hungary’s piggy bank, a vital source of funding that Mr. Orban has exploited to provide subsidies and aid that have in turn strengthened his political position.

Until disputes with Brussels began to disrupt the flow of money, Hungary was the third largest net recipient of EU funds, meaning it was taking billions of euros out of the EU budget more than it invested in it, according to the Center for European Policy, a German organization. research group.

After entering recession in 2023, Hungary needs European money more than ever as it struggles to revive anemic growth, plug a big hole in the budget and restore confidence in its flagging national currency, the forint.

In the eyes of his European partners, Mr. Orban has become not only more stubborn, but also harder to read.

“Lately, people are less sure about what is happening with Orban and they think he is more unpredictable,” said Camino Mortera-Martinez, who heads the Center for European Reform, a think tank.

Speaking to journalists before the summit, senior EU officials readily admitted that, unable to rely on hard facts to predict Mr Orban’s next move, they had resorted to psychoanalysis.

Until now, one of the key assumptions in European circles has been that Mr Orban was mainly motivated by money: give him some money and his objections to EU policy in Ukraine disappear. evaporate.

This thinking underpins a long-standing belief in Brussels that the break with Hungary is avoidable because Mr Orban, if not convinced, can at least be bought.

Mr Orban insists his objection to sanctioning Russia and committing more aid to Ukraine is a matter of principle, not money, and that he simply does not agree with the idea that Russia threatens the security of Europe.

Mr Orban wants disbursements from the EU fund to be subject to annual unanimous approval, saying he wants to protect EU money.

Most observers view Mr. Orban’s request as an attempt to create an annual opportunity to use his veto as a weapon and demand European funds that have been withheld from Hungary. But there are other interpretations.

“One of the theories going around is that he was paid by Putin,” Ms Mortera-Martinez said, citing Mr Orban’s decision to skip a European summit and go to Beijing and be photographed with the Russian president as a particularly difficult moment. .

Another theory is that Mr Orban believes the world is about to change radically in his favor as his political positions – conservative Christian values, anti-immigration policies and pro-Russian views – are on the rise.

“He saw that nativist forces are winning in EU member states, but also that Trump can win, and that could completely change the European Union’s approach to Ukraine,” Mortera said. Martinez.

Regardless, the sour mood toward Mr. Orban will be palpable when he joins other European leaders in Brussels. If the summit ends without a deal on Ukraine, voices will likely be raised in favor of more decisive isolation.

But design Ways of proving to Orban their decisions will be a difficult task, given that the EU is designed to be more or less permanent and there is no appetite for drama ahead of the bloc’s parliamentary elections in any the European Union in June.

If Mr Orban attends the summit, his peers will be ready to help him present the result as a personal victory. But he may need a new playbook in the future, and he’ll have trouble finding friends in the room.

“Viktor Orban has become a kind of pantomime villain,” said Jacob Kirkegaard of the German Marshall Fund, “and leaders see him as a bad faith actor.”

“He is running out of political resources because of his attitude and because the stakes have increased,” Mr Kirkegaard said. “He chose a very bad hill to die on.”

Andrew Higgins contributed to reporting from Warsaw, and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.

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