By Mujtaba Rahman
Last week’s European Council shows that Hungary-EU relations are likely broken beyond repair, and ultimately heading towards breaking point. It is wrong to draw any comfort whatsoever from Viktor Orbán’s decision to enable Ukraine’s EU membership talks to begin. His decision to walk out of the room means he does not support Ukraine’s EU aspirations. That is an immovable constraint in a process that is totally dependant upon unanimity at every single stage:
- Adoption of negotiating framework for Ukraine/EU talks
- Opening and closing of 35 chapters that Kyiv must complete to enter EU (look at Turkey)
- Final accession treaty which also requires national ratification
Here’s what Orbán’s chief aide Balázs Orbán had to say:
“In the last few hours in Brussels, the European Council has deliberated on Ukraine’s accession. Hungary’s stance remains firm and unaltered: we do not consider Ukraine ready for EU negotiations.Consequently we oppose commencing negotiations.
“However, 26 EU Member States hold a contrary view. Following extensive negotiations, Hungary opted to exit the meeting room and abstain from the vote—not to obstruct the outcome but to avoid cooperating in what we perceive as a misguided decision.
“The European Council’s agreement represents a decision in principle. Subsequently, Member States must also unanimously agree on the specific negotiating framework. Additionally, a minimum of 70 unanimous decisions will be required throughout the upcoming years to endorse Ukraine’s accession to the EU.”
But the EU’s Hungary problem is much, much bigger than Ukraine. Just over the horizon, there is an (arguably) unresolvable and hence existential fight looming, of which Ukraine is only a small part.
To understand what Viktor Orbán is up to, we need to clearly understand his goal(s). What are they? Put simply: regime survival. Whether in or outside the EU. The problem for him is that the survival of his regime may now be incompatible with EU membership over the long term. Why? Because of EU instruments – for example, the Rule of Law Mechanism and the Recovery and Resilience Facility – that the EU designed after the Covid pandemic – which now require domestic reforms to basically protect against corruption, and introduce greater transparency in order for billions of Euros to be released to Hungary.
This is a major problem for Orbán. If he fully implements the reforms the EU is seeking, it will be much harder for him. This is because of alleged misuse of European funds being used to grease the patronage network upon which his power relies. If he doesn’t implement reforms, he’s unlikely to see any of the EU cash that is key to his kleptocratic regime. Orbán thus needs Brussels to release money to his government without him properly implementing the reforms the EU is seeking. That is an equilibrium he’s trying to achieve with the use of vetoes and blackmail.
This explains the walkout over Ukraine’s EU decision and the multiple vetoes he will likely use in the future. Or the billboard campaign against Von der Leyen that Orbán is running in Hungary – to have leverage over her reconfirmation as the EU Commission President for a second term after the EU elections on 6-9 June 2024.
Critics argue the EU is soft and Orbán is winning the argument. But that’s unfair. More interesting is that the EU is holding the line quite well. Despite extensive negotiations, only €10bn has been released to Budapest so far. The EU is also still sitting on a further €22bn, some of which Orbán may never see. This partly explains why he is trying to help likeminded allies in the EU win or retain power – to build a coalition in the European Council. Examples are:
- his €10.6mn loan to Marine Le Pen for her 2022 presidential campaign
- in December 2021, his €12mn transfer to media companies close to Slovenia’s Janez Janša’s SDS party
- more recently, his financial assistance for the far-right PiS in Poland, including campaign communications support and advisers in the run-up to elections in September to October 2023 (exact amounts weren’t reported)
Orbán is arguably the biggest sponsor of the far right in EU. He will likely be looking closely at elections in Austria, as well as government formation talks in the Netherlands over the coming months.
But he must surely also be preparing for the worst: a situation where long-term survival of his regime is ultimately incompatible with the new strictures of EU membership – either because he has to implement the reforms Brussels wants, or doesn’t, in which case he doesn’t get the billions of Euros he needs. Many senior EU officials and opposition Hungarian officials think this largely explains alliances Orbán is building with Russia, China and with Trump in the US. One day, over the longer term, his regime may be more dependant for its survival on these regimes than with EU membership.
Ukraine also plays an important role here – as it joining the EU would accelerate Hungary’s transition from a net recipient from the EU budget to a contributor towards it, further diluting benefits of membership. That’s why senior EU officials are sceptical Orbán will ever let Ukraine join.
Senior opposition Hungarian voices are convinced Orbán is trying to build a political majority in Hungary against the EU that he can leverage if he ever needs to leave – one day. What he doesn’t have an answer for is how his economy could survive outside the Customs Union or Single Market. But that is what Hungarian officials are keen to explore. For example, when Emmanuel Macron first conceived of the European Political Community, senior Hungarian officials lobbied the Élysée to try to get bits of the Single Market attached to it. So perhaps this hypothesis isn’t so far-fetched.
Put differently Viktor Orbán has the contours of a strategy, but not a timeline. The question he is trying to solve for is “Can my system be sustained in the EU?” This suggests a strongly negative trajectory for Hungary-EU relations going forward.
Orbán is a structural problem for EU. The survival of his regime within the EU is going to require ever more maverick and extreme behaviour by him in future – on Ukraine and more. That, together with the preparation for the day his survival and EU membership are fundamentally no longer compatible.
This article is lightly edited from a thread on Twitter, reproduced with the kind permission of Mujtaba Rahman. He is Managing Director, Europe at Eurasia Group and Visiting Research Fellow at LSE. Follow him on Twitter.