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Politico: Putin's friend Orban pushes EU "to the brink" due to his negative attitude towards Ukraine

Anna PaskevychPolitics
European leaders seem to have decided to cater to the "bad guy"

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban regularly pushes the EU "to the brink," but diplomats are panicking that his hostility towards Ukraine is about to push the bloc "off the cliff" even further. The brewing political crisis could erupt at a summit in mid-December when EU leaders are expected to make a historic decision to admit Ukraine to the 27-nation union and approve a €50 billion aid package for the country.

This was reported by the American newspaper Politico. According to the article, the meeting in December will be "a signal to the United States" that, despite political differences over the war in the Middle East, the EU is fully committed to Ukraine.

These hopes are likely to be "dashed" by Orban, a "man of power" who maintains close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and is widely seen as the one undermining democracy and the rule of law at home, the newspaper writes.

Thus, Orban demands that the entire political and financial process be frozen until the leaders agree to a complete review of EU support for Kyiv.

"This is causing EU leaders a huge headache. Although Hungary makes up only two percent of the EU's population, Orban can hold the bloc hostage because he is expected to make important strategic decisions unanimously, and these are unlikely to be anything more than initiating accession talks with Ukraine," the article says.

The Hungarian prime minister has been the most vocal opponent of sanctions against Russia since Putin's occupation of Crimea in 2014. But this time is different, EU diplomats and officials said.

"We are heading for a serious crisis," said one EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Another senior diplomat warned that it could be "one of the most difficult European summits ever."

Orban is playing a long game, Péter Krekó, director of the Political Capital Institute in Budapest, told Politico.

"Orban has been waiting for Europe to realize that it is impossible to win the war in Ukraine and that Kyiv has to make concessions. (...) Now he feels that his time is coming because Ukraine fatigue is growing in public opinion in many EU countries," he said.

Theoretically, a "nuclear" option is under consideration, which would deprive Hungary of participation in EU political decisions, but countries believe it is toxic as it would set a precedent for disunity and fragmentation of the EU. For now, European leaders seem to be sticking to their usual approach of catering to the "bad guy in the EU" by trying to reach a compromise, Politico writes.

European Council President Charles Michel is leading the most "soft" push for compromise. He traveled to Budapest this week for an intense two-hour discussion with Orban. Although the meeting did not lead to an immediate "breakthrough," it was useful to understand Orban's concerns, another EU official said.

It's all about money

Some European diplomats interpreted Orban's threats as a strategy to increase pressure on the European Commission, which is withholding €13 billion in EU funds for Hungary because of concerns that the country does not meet EU standards for the rule of law, the newspaper said.

Others, however, said it would be a mistake not to go beyond immediate transactional tactics. Orban has long questioned the EU's strategy towards Ukraine, but he has been largely ignored or portrayed as a puppet of Putin.

"We looked at it with surprise, but maybe we didn't have enough time to really listen," another senior EU diplomat admitted.

Orban, who is the leader of the Fidesz party (Hungarian Civic Union), is increasingly isolated in Brussels. Previous peacekeepers such as former German Chancellor Angela Merkel or other Orban supporters from the so-called Visegrad Four - Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic - are no longer there. The expected return of Donald Tusk to Poland, a pro-European and anti-Russian leader, will only increase Orban's status as a lonely and rebellious opponent, the article says.

"There is no one left who can reason with Orban. He is now undermining the EU from within," a third bloc representative said.

In theory, Brussels could use the so-called Article 7 procedure against Hungary, which is used when a country is believed to be in danger of violating the bloc's core values. This procedure is sometimes referred to as the EU's "nuclear option" because it involves the most serious political sanction: suspension of voting rights on EU decisions.

However, the EU does not want to use this option against Hungary. When "diplomatic sanctions" were imposed on Austria in 2000 when the party of the far-right Austrian leader Jörg Haider entered the coalition, it had unpleasant consequences. Many Austrians were dissatisfied with EU interference and anti-European sentiment increased dramatically. The sanctions were lifted later that year.

Now, there is a widespread belief in Brussels that Article 7 could trigger a similarly negative reaction in Budapest, fueling populism and even potentially causing a snowball effect leading to Hungary's unintended exit from the bloc in the long run.

With these concerns in mind, diplomats are working hard to find ways to circumvent the Hungarian veto.

Searching for compromises

One option is to divide the 50 billion euros earmarked for Ukraine between 2024 and 2027 into smaller amounts on an annual basis, three EU officials told the publication. However, critics warn that this option would fail to provide greater predictability and confidence in Ukraine's struggling public finances.

It would also send a bad political signal: if the EU cannot make a long-term commitment to Ukraine, how can it ask the US to do the same?

The same problem applies to the planned EU military assistance. EU countries could use bilateral agreements rather than EU structures such as the European Peace Fund to channel military aid to Ukraine, which would effectively freeze Budapest.

However, this would mean that the EU as such would play no role in the supply of weapons. This is an admission of powerlessness that is difficult to accept and damaging to EU unity towards Kyiv.

Commenting on Hungary's position, the Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, Ruslan Stefanchuk, told Politico, "Ukraine is going to the EU, and Ukraine has fulfilled all the recommendations (...) I want to make sure that all member states respect the progress made and demonstrated by Ukraine."

The EU still has one more default option, and it is a classic EU one: to postpone the issue and postpone key policy decisions on Ukraine until early next year, the newspaper writes.

Such a delay would also lead to talk of broken EU unity, another EU diplomat said. However, according to him, "in the real world, this would not be a problem because Ukraine's budget is fine until March 2024."

At the same time, Europe is preparing for elections next June, making it difficult to agree on sensitive decisions.

"The approach to the elections will not make the situation easier," said another EU official, emphasizing that quick decisions are key for Ukraine. "It is important for Zelenskyy to keep the morale on the battlefield high."

Brussels is also increasingly concerned about Orban's long game, Politico reports. There is a constant stream of attacks on Brussels from Budapest on issues ranging from democracy deficits to culture wars over EU migration policy.

"No one feels comfortable with what is happening in Hungary. ...When he asks his people many things, they don't ask back why he doesn't leave the bloc if the EU is so much worse than the U.S.S.R." European Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn told reporters on Thursday.

But Orban seems more eager to take over the EU from within, rather than "leaving the ship" as the UK did. He also feels the wind that is blowing in his direction after the recent election results in Slovakia and the Netherlands, where the winners are on the same page as him when it comes to Ukraine, migration, or gender issues, Krekó says. For example, Orban was quick to congratulate the winner of the Dutch election, a staunch opponent of the EU, Geert Wilders, saying that "the wind of change is here."

"Orban is playing the long game," said a third EU official. "With Wilders, one or two other far-right leaders in Europe, and the potential return of Trump, he may soon be less isolated than we all think.

As reported by OBOZ.UA, European Council President Charles Michel sharply responded to Orban's call not to negotiate with Ukraine on joining the EU. He emphasized that the EU already has an association agreement with Kyiv.

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