VISEGRAD BLOG: Orban folds after EU leaders call his bluff

VISEGRAD BLOG: Orban folds after EU leaders call his bluff
Viktor Orban threw in his hand before the summit meeting had even properly began. / bne IntelliNews
By Robert Anderson in Prague February 3, 2024

The European Council Summit this week was a comprehensive defeat for Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban. Having forced the EU to hold the February 1 summit by vetoing the European Union €50bn aid package for Ukraine at a summit before Christmas, Orban threw in his hand before the meeting had even properly began.

As bne IntelliNews predicted he would, the Hungarian premier backed down when he found himself totally isolated, with potential populist allies such as Italy’s Giorgia Meloni and Slovakia’s Robert Fico standing among the majority of 26 member states supporting the package.

Orban’s humiliation follows the diplomatic debacle of his obstruction of Sweden’s accession to Nato. After months of hiding behind Turkey – which had concessions it wanted to win from Stockholm – Orban was left exposed when Ankara swiftly shifted position, leaving Hungary as the only country still to give its approval. Budapest is now likely to approve Swedish entry in short order.

The four-year EU aid package will now go to the European Parliament and should begin to be disbursed this spring, giving Ukraine a vital breathing space.

The only concessions Europe’s self-styled “national conservative” leader claimed to have won were mere figleafs. The aid package can be discussed by the council every year and in two years time there is the possibility of a review, but only if the council unanimously agrees.

Orban also won an assurance that the issue of Hungary’s €22bn of frozen EU funds will be handled impartially. Statements by other EU leaders afterwards demonstrated that this pledge was virtually worthless: the aid will remain frozen until his regime respects EU values, restores the rule of law and starts to investigate its own corruption.

Orban had overplayed his hand, infuriated EU leaders, and deepened his isolation inside the bloc. EU sources had threatened toughening of the fund freeze or even suspending Hungary’s voting rights, in a sign that the EU’s patience is running out.

Perhaps Orban had hoped that Fico would back him up, after the Slovak populist leftist premier promised his support at a meeting in Budapest earlier this month. But Slovakia is a weak player in Europe and Fico is focussed on consolidating his rule by pushing through judicial reforms that stop corruption investigations into his previous term in power.

Fico faces growing protests and he fears that the EU could intervene by blocking funding, which could turbocharge the demonstrations. Acting as Orban’s shield man and thereby antagonising Brussels was never on the cards.

Meloni reportedly played a big role in persuading Orban to back down before the summit began. The Italian premier has disappointed Orban by steering close to the EU mainstream since taking office in October 2022.

Nevertheless Meloni is vital for Orban as she is the real leader of Europe’s radical right and will have the final say on his Fidesz party’s future role in the European Parliament.

Currently Fidesz is part of no group in the parliament after jumping before it was pushed out of the European People’s Party (EPP) in 2021. This deprives Hungary of influential posts in the parliament and makes it more difficult to co-ordinate tactics with other groups.

Joining Meloni's European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group would be Orban’s favourite option but this is made more difficult by his continued strong ties with Russia. This would not be an obstacle to joining the far-right Identity and Democracy group, but this remains almost a pariah in Brussels.

If the Ukraine issue somehow becomes less salient – perhaps with a real stalemate – Meloni’s Brothers of Italy could support Fidesz’s entry as a welcome boost for the ECR.

Opinion polls show that after the European Parliamentary Elections in June, the ECR could leapfrog both the Identity and Democracy group and the liberal Renew Europe group to become the third force in the chamber.

The elections are unlikely to produce a formal rightwing coalition in the parliament, given the EPP’s aversion to the Identity and Democracy group, but on selected issues there could now be a rightwing working majority. This would also influence the complexion of the next Commission, and its resolve to prosecute miscreants such as Hungary.

Therefore we may see Orban almost behaving himself over the next few months, hoping to have the last laugh at the European elections.

This blog first appeared on bne IntelliNews's Editor's Picks. To sign up for the daily Editor's Picks newsletter, please click here.