Viktor Orbán: what is the endgame for Europe’s chief disrupter?

Viktor Orbán was asked on Hungarian TV late last year whether his antagonism towards Brussels and Washington would lead Hungary away from the west and out of the EU.

“Our plan is not to leave the EU,” he replied. “Our plan is to conquer it.”

Orbán was speaking shortly after he vetoed an €50bn EU aid package for Ukraine at a summit in December. EU leaders will convene again in Brussels on Thursday to try to persuade him to back down. 

The Hungarian premier is more isolated than ever, say EU officials. But Orbán is convinced that politics is shifting to the right on both sides of the Atlantic, favouring his agenda. He told Hungarian TV that the EU would come round to his way of thinking — that it should be pressing Ukraine to negotiate with Russia, not supporting its resistance — just as he believes it did on immigration.

Unless he softens his stance, Orbán will face the wrath of European leaders, exasperated by his increasingly obstructionist tactics in both the EU and Nato.

Diplomats say he relishes being centre stage. The shrewd negotiator has a long history of blocking EU decisions to extract concessions. But the greater Orbán’s intransigence, the more uncertain European diplomats and officials seem about his objectives — and his price.

One view is that he is once again trying to force Brussels to release money for Hungary that remains frozen over concerns about the country’s rule of law and anti-corruption measures.

“This is primarily about blackmail, leverage and unblocking his money,” says a senior EU diplomat.

Others suspect Orbán wants to go further and undermine EU institutions that constrain his actions, particularly the European Commission and its president, Ursula von der Leyen.

Not that Orbán appears deterred by EU concerns over the state of Hungarian democracy and the rule of law. 

On the same day as EU leaders convene, a new Sovereignty Protection Authority starts work in Budapest, with the aim of rooting out foreign influence in politics, academia and the media. It is the latest step in the Hungarian leader’s decade-long project curtailing political freedoms and legal rights.

The body has sweeping investigative powers and no judicial oversight. Its legal basis is “so vague that the invasive scrutiny of the proposed office could be weaponised against anybody who may be considered an adversary due, for instance, to ‘activities aimed at influencing democratic debate’”, the Council of Europe, the continent’s rights watchdog, warned in November.

Orbán attends a European Council summit last June. The Hungarian leader believes political shifts on the continent will eventually mean he will be less isolated in the bloc © Olivier Hoslet/EPA-EFE

“If anyone is perceived to endanger sovereignty, such as me talking to you right now and saying the EU should send no money [to Hungary], they could become subjects of the deepest investigations without any kind of legal oversight or the ability to complain,” says Ákos Hadházy, an independent MP and former member of Orbán’s Fidesz party turned critic.

“Now . . . it is blatantly clear for everybody why it is a problem to cultivate autocrats inside Europe, why it is a challenge not only for the people of certain countries, but for all people in the European Union,” says Katalin Cseh, a Hungarian opposition member of the European parliament.

Orbán insists that Hungary’s political system is more open than other countries — he highlights as evidence the legal proceedings that Donald Trump faces in the US and alleged surveillance of the far-right Alternative for Germany party. “No one can seriously think that the way we lead this country is any worse than [the west],” he told Hungarian TV.

To his European and US allies, Orban’s has crossed a rubicon by blocking EU financial and military aid for Ukraine and for holding back on ratifying Nato membership first for Finland and now Sweden. They accuse him of acting against their fundamental foreign policy interests at a time of war on the continent, and even of doing the Kremlin’s bidding.

One EU diplomat says vetoing aid for Ukraine is “the final straw”. Orbán’s past behaviour was “political posturing . . . This has an impact in the real world.”

Volodymyr Zelenskyy talks to Orbán at the inauguration of Argentina’s new president, Javier Milei, last year. Budapest’s relations with Kyiv have been poor for years © Ukranian Presidency/ABACA/Reuters

In an interview with the Financial Times, the US ambassador to Hungary, David Pressman, is unusually blunt. “This government is not listening to or engaging with us in a productive dialogue on issues that are core to the US national security interests,” he says.

The Hungarian premier is friendly towards Moscow and broke ranks last October by becoming the first EU leader to meet Vladimir Putin since the Russian president ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Budapest’s relations with Kyiv have been poor for years, partly over the issue of minority rights for ethnic Hungarians living in western Ukraine. It has blocked Nato-Ukraine co-operation since 2017.

Whatever his intentions, Pressman says, Orbán’s policy choices are “helpful to Putin and harmful to careful efforts to keep the alliance and our partners together”.

Such is the exasperation with Orbán’s stubbornness that Hungary’s partners have sought ways to retaliate.

Officials in Brussels last week drew up a plan to punish his “unconstructive behaviour” in which member states would rule out any further EU funding for Hungary with the aim of undermining confidence in the Hungarian economy. Budapest said it was EU “blackmail”.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson hinted that a Hungarian lease of 14 Gripen fighter jets — which account for the entire fixed-wing combat section of Hungary’s air force — could be at stake if Budapest continued to block Sweden’s path into Nato.

European diplomats say there has been discussion in several capitals of triggering the EU’s so-called Article 7 sanction, which can ultimately result in the suspension of a member state’s voting rights, the heaviest punishment possible. Others have rebuffed such a step, given that it requires unanimous support from its members and many countries are reluctant to deploy such a tool. 

A Gripen jet flies over the Danube river during an air show in Budapest. Sweden has hinted that Hungary’s lease of the aircraft could be at risk if Orbán continued to block its path into Nato © Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Hegedüs, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund think-tank, says member states should at least initiate the first phase of the procedure, which only requires a fourth-fifths majority “if the goal is to give the message to the Hungarians that you have to change your behaviour. If nothing else it is naming and shaming.”

The defeat of the Eurosceptic but pro-Ukrainian government in Poland following elections last year has left Orbán more isolated than ever, say officials and diplomats. He has a potential ally in Robert Fico, the populist prime minister of Slovakia who returned to power last year and has voiced pro-Russian leanings. But although the Slovak premier raises rule of law concerns of his own, he appears more flexible than his Hungarian counterpart, and changed his stance on Ukraine following a visit to the war-torn country earlier this month.

Before the EU summit in Brussels in December — where Orbán took a one-man stand against helping Ukraine — the Hungarians proposed to Fico that the two leaders arrive together and give a joint statement to the press. Fico refused, according to people briefed on the discussions, and proceeded to contradict Orbán’s arguments in the room.

“Orbán came to [the December summit] expecting to find silent allies around the [European Commission] table who would emerge and say, ‘Viktor has a point here,’” says a senior European diplomat. “But none emerged.”

Orbán’s allies brush off his apparent isolation. 

“This is not a position that we enjoy,” says János Bóka, Orbán’s EU minister and a former adviser on Europe. However, he says, “being alone . . . in the European Union is not something that prevents the Hungarian government from pursuing a specific position. In Hungary, our political community expects the Hungarian government to be firm and uncompromising on national interests.”

On the contrary, the Hungarian government sees the balance of power tilting in its favour this year, with the strong possibility of Trump’s return to the White House and gains for the populist, nationalist right and far right in European parliamentary elections in June and several other national polls supporting its Eurosceptic positions. 

This will be a “year of political opportunity” for Hungary, says Bóka.

Orbán will do everything to take it.

Ironically for someone who decries foreign interference in his country’s affairs, the Hungarian leader is not afraid to directly intervene in politics elsewhere. France’s far-right National Rally party received a loan from a Hungarian bank run by Orbán associates. The Hungarian government is reported to have funded anti-immigration adverts in Polish ahead of last year’s election. Protests by farmers against the EU in Brussels last week were organised by a Hungarian think-tank chaired by a close aide to the prime minister.

The Hungarian prime minister addresses the parliament in Budapest on Ukraine’s accession talks with the EU. He has a long history of blocking EU decisions to extract concessions © Szilard Koszticsak/EPA-EFE

As the US gears up for elections, Orbán is openly advocating Trump’s return to the White House while denigrating the Biden administration, says ambassador Pressman.

“I am sure that if President Trump were president, then today Ukraine and Europe would not be stricken by any kind of war,” Orbán told a Republican-aligned Conservative Political Action Conference in Hungary last May. “Come back Mr President, make America great again and bring us peace!”

In Europe, Orbán is a keen student of political developments across the continent, even conducting surveys in all other EU member states to understand political dynamics. According to close allies, the Hungarian leader has watched the slide in support for mainstream parties in Germany and elsewhere in the EU and is betting that voters will end up wanting things such as energy links with Russia restored and better social protections, rather than spending on Ukrainians or immigrants. 

Orbán sees “a very large playground among all the people who have now found themselves outside the old dual order [of established parties]”, says one person with knowledge of the premier’s thinking.

The polls in Europe put right-wing parties in a strong position. Surveys suggest the nationalist European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), led by Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, and the more radical Identity and Democracy Group (ID), home to the French and German far-right parties, will gain ground in June’s European parliament elections at the expense of the greens and liberals.

Their gains would be enough to shift parliament to more conservative positions on environmental legislation and laws on immigration and asylum, according to a study by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Orbán dreams of uniting ID and ECR into one large Eurosceptic bloc but the two groups remain deeply divided between relative moderates and extremists and over the question of support for Russia. His party, Fidesz, which was forced out of the mainstream conservative family in 2021, is a member of neither but would be a natural fit for the ECR, were it not for its position on Ukraine and Russia.

The Hungarian leader believes the upcoming European parliament elections will signal a new political order in Europe following the far-right’s victory in last year’s Dutch elections and probably later this year in Austria. His calculation, say allies, is that within a few years he will never be alone again in the European Council.

Protesters outside the Hungarian state television building in March 2022. Last year, Orbán became the first EU leader to meet Vladimir Putin since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine © Marton Monus/Reuters

In the meantime, Hungary will press for a looser, less integrated EU, says Bóka, an objective that unites all Eurosceptic parties in Europe.

“We need a Brussels that stands up for the self-esteem of nations, allows countries to choose their way of life, regulates the market but won’t tell a Pole, a Hungarian or a Portuguese how they should live,” Orbán told Hungarian TV.

Indeed, several EU officials involved in the discussions with Hungary say the aim of Orbán’s confrontational tactics has been to erode the commission’s standing and its rule of law safeguards.  

“This is about a sustained campaign to shift power from Brussels to the member states,” says one senior EU diplomat involved in the negotiations with Hungary. “That’s his game plan.”

“The commission is a giant compromise machine,” the diplomat adds. “And it was designed to work with countries who play by the rules. Hungary does not play by the rules.”

Shortly before he wielded his veto against the Ukraine support package in December, the commission released €10bn in blocked funding following legal changes by Hungary to strengthen judicial independence. The commission said it could have faced legal action if it had not released the money given that Budapest had acquiesced to the concessions Brussels had requested.

But the release of EU funds was hugely contentious with Orbán’s domestic opponents and his critics in the European parliament, who are threatening legal action against the commission.

“We cannot expect Hungary to return to the rule of law through narrow and technical changes,” says Katalin Cseh, an opposition MEP. “It was very clear that the justice reforms . . . weren’t complete, the guarantees were not there.”

Cseh points out that Brussels released the €10bn in frozen funds less than 24 hours after the final judicial reform was passed into law by Hungary’s parliament, hardly time for proper scrutiny.

Any further compromise by Brussels could damage the credibility of the conditionality mechanism, a tool used against Hungary in 2022, and the standing of von der Leyen in the eyes of MEPs and national leaders. She requires the backing of both to win a second five-year mandate at the top of the commission this autumn.

Orbán opposes a second term for von der Leyen and has vilified her in campaign posters plastered around Budapest and other cities. Undermining her is a critical part of his anti-Brussels campaign, officials say.

“He is playing a very long game, and has more time than most,” says a second EU diplomat present during the summit talks. “Quite honestly, he is better at playing the game than most, too.”

Orbán’s opponents reject the idea that there is some higher ideological or even foreign policy purpose to his obstructive behaviour in Brussels. Everything, they say, is about keeping control in Hungary through politicised public institutions and crony capitalism, a system he has dubbed the System of National Cooperation — one that requires the continued flow of EU funds.

Confrontation with Brussels serves to polarise the electorate, turn the opposition into enemies and deflects attention from real problems, such as Hungary’s weak economy, says independent MP Hadházy.

“It is not about conviction or ideology. It is about preservation of power,” he says.

“If everyone’s against him, then back home he’s a freedom fighter, at least to his voters,” says Ágnes Vadai, an opposition MP. “He’s not pro-Russia, he’s not pro-Putin; he’s pro the Putin system.”

Additional reporting by Andy Bounds in Brussels

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