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How to deal with the EU’s Orbán problem

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Western exasperation with Viktor Orbán’s behaviour is starting to boil over. The Hungarian leader has long played the role of the EU’s chief antagonist, obstructing its decision-making, undermining its institutions and traducing its democratic values. He has conducted a renegade foreign policy, courting China and cosying up to Russia. But Orbán’s disruption has reached a new level.

The Hungarian leader has repeatedly blocked the EU’s proposed €50bn four-year aid plan for Ukraine and a separate fund to a pay for weapons, ammunition and military training. He is now inexplicably dragging his feet on ratifying Sweden’s accession to Nato, having done the same with Finland. But to what end? Turkey held out until it received assurances from Stockholm on its handling of Kurdish extremists and a US promise of F-16 fighter jets. Orbán has no obvious price. This is not a transactional position; it is a disloyal one.

At a time of war on the European continent, Orbán is acting in a way that directly conflicts with the fundamental security interests of Hungary’s allies in Europe and the US. He is campaigning for Donald Trump’s return to the White House. In the past week, the US has openly accused him of acting in a way that is helpful to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and harmful to the unity of the Atlantic alliance with a “fantasy foreign policy”.

So great is the frustration that some in the EU are contemplating retaliation. Officials in Brussels came up with a plan to undermine the Hungarian economy if Orbán continued to block agreement on EU aid for Ukraine. The idea was that if other EU member states vowed to never send another euro to Budapest, it would weaken the forint, Hungary’s currency, and shatter investor confidence, forcing Orbán to back down.

The document may have been intended as a shot across Hungarian bows rather than a serious proposal. Either way, it is neither sensible nor practical. Sabotage — there is no other word for it — just plays into Orbán’s hands, allowing him to depict Hungarians as the victims of an abuse of power by Brussels bureaucrats. It is impractical because EU leaders cannot simply wish an end to the bloc’s funds for Hungary. Like it or not, the EU must follow due process.

It is understandable that many EU leaders and taxpayers are no longer willing to finance Orbán’s crony capitalism or illiberal system. In another step towards autocracy, Hungary’s parliament last month adopted a Defence of National Sovereignty law setting up an authority to root out foreign influence in politics, civil society, academia and the media. The authority has sweeping investigative powers and is subject to no judicial oversight. It is a persecutor’s dream machine.

This is enough to justify use of the EU’s conditionality mechanism to withhold EU funds. The mechanism has been a valuable addition to the EU’s limited toolbox for protecting the rule of law. It was used to extract some narrow concessions on judicial independence in Hungary last year and released €10bn in frozen funds in return. Brussels should deploy it more proactively and demand bigger changes.

If Orbán blocks EU aid to Ukraine again, the other 26 capitals must swiftly adopt a plan B to help Kyiv. In return, they should trigger the bloc’s Article 7 punishment procedure, which could lead to the suspension of Budapest’s EU voting rights, on the grounds that Hungary is refusing “sincere co-operation”. Member states have balked at such a drastic step in the past. It is slow and ultimately requires unanimity. But with the change of government in Poland, Orbán is more isolated than ever. It is time for the EU to show, in a sensible way, that enough is enough.

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