The EU Needs a Long-Term Solution to Orbán’s Ukraine Standoff
This article was originally published in Visegrad Insight on December, 13 2023.
The European Council meeting on December 14–15 is intended to approve the start of EU accession negotiations with Ukraine, as recommended by the European Commission in November. The commission and all the members states share the understanding that the accession process cannot be separated from the geopolitical realities created by Russia’s war against Ukraine and that advancing Ukraine’s accession is a strategic necessity—with the exception of Hungary.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has requested that Ukraine’s accession be removed from the agenda. Hungary is also blocking a €50 billion financial aid package to Ukraine and €500 million from the European Peace Facility for arms deliveries to the country. The former is necessary to keep Ukraine afloat and avoid a budget crisis as early as March 2024. The latter is important to disburse the military aid of member states for Ukraine, and thus also to keep their donations flowing.
The situation is reminiscent of Hungary’s blocking of the EU’s budget in 2020, except that this time it does not have Poland as a comrade in arms. Today, an illiberal regime holds the EU’s strategic interests and international standing hostage to extort concessions that would enable it to further pursue its domestic authoritarian agenda.
Orbán’s anti-Ukraine position is often explained by his government’s cordial ties with the Kremlin or as bargaining to obtain as much as possible from Hungary’s suspended €22 billion from the EU’s Cohesion Fund and €10.4 billion under the European Recovery and Resilience Facility. But there is no single reason.
Rather, Orbán’s actions are rooted within the triangle of his regime’s strategic pro-Russia stance, his desire to get the EU funds without democratic or rule-of-law conditionality, and domestic political considerations. There is thus no deal that the other member states could offer Hungary that would immediately and sustainably remove his Ukraine block—he will always ask for more.
A successful, democratic, and pro-West Ukraine is an existential threat for Orbán’s regime just as it is for President Vladimir Putin’s regime. His strategic interest is therefore the country’s defeat.
Orbán’s autocratic rule, his geopolitical balancing, and his reliance at home on strategic corruption have had a high cost for Hungary in terms of competitiveness, economic performance, and living standards. In the early 2000s, in Central and Eastern Europe only Czechia had a higher GDP per capita than Hungary; today, only Bulgaria and Croatia have a lower one. Over the past 15 years, Slovakia, Poland, and Romania overtook Hungary in competitiveness and economic performance.
But it is the example of Ukraine that could prove to Hungarians that Orbán’s choices have been a historic failure and that democratic governance and a pro-West orientation is the key to national success. The project of a democratic Ukraine integrated in EU structures is the antithesis of Orbán’s project of turning a democratic member state into an autocracy whose true loyalties lay outside the West.
It is the example of Ukraine that could prove to Hungarians that Orbán’s choices have been a historic failure.
If Ukraine, by overcoming the legacies of a post-Soviet economy and society, can successfully achieve its goal while developing an unprecedentedly good reputation, this will fundamentally undermine the rationale of Orbán’s endeavor, which relies on the alleged demise of the West.
Orbán recognized early the threat posed by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to his autocratic rule. In his victory speech following the 2022 parliamentary elections, he labeled Zelensky his political adversary, personalizing the challenge posed by a successful Ukraine to his rule.
Therefore, the rest of the EU cannot be certain that Orbán wants an immediate deal to get access to the suspended funds in exchange for abandoning his Ukraine block. This was further highlighted earlier this month when Hungary’s parliament passed a resolution calling for the government to oppose the opening of accession talks with Ukraine, entrenching Budapest’s position and making any concessions by Orbán even less likely.
What is more, Hungary might get access to a large amount of EU funds before the end of the year regardless of a deal. It already received €900 million in pre-financing from the RePowerEU program in November, and it is likely that the European Commission will this month release a further €10 billion that had been blocked in relation to judicial independence in the country.
Hungary’s latest legislation with regard to this only superficially meets the conditions set by the EU and yet pressure is increasing on the European Commission to release the funds. This may happen just out of badly understood technocratic compliance by the commission and without any broader deal.
Strategic Goal and Pretexts
Orbán’s strategic goal with his Ukraine block is twofold.
First, he is demonstrating his leverage and the damage his government can cause to the EU in strategic matters. This is intended to shape the cost-benefit calculations of other member states in the long run by displaying how Budapest can raise the political costs of any future confrontation around the rule of law, democracy, and the corruption record of Orbán’s regime.
Second, Orbán is deliberately weakening Ukraine because its defeat is in his strategic interest. He does not share the traditional Central European threat perception related to Russia, and he knows that Moscow is not in a position to subjugate all of Ukraine. Hence, he does not fear the emergence of a situation where there would be Russian troops on Hungary’s border. Orbán’s interest is a weak, defeated, humiliated, and mutilated Ukraine, which would show to Hungarians that relying solely on the West is a mistake that their country should not make.
Other reasons circulating for Orbán’s actions can be seen as pretexts. Over the past months, Ukraine has taken a constructive approach to Hungary’s demands and yet Budapest has escalated. This proves that Orbán’s latest position on Ukraine’s accession and EU enlargement has more to do with his much criticized meeting with Putin in Beijing in October than with Ukraine’s responsiveness to Hungary’s concerns and sensitivities.
Ukraine has taken a constructive approach to Hungary’s demands and yet Budapest has escalated.
In October, Ukraine removed the Hungarian OTP Bank from its “international sponsors of war” list, solving one of the most difficult issues in bilateral relations this year. On December 8, Ukraine’s parliament passed a law that restores the right to use minority languages (except Russian) in schools. This addressed the main issue that has poisoned relations with Hungary since 2017 and that its government always referred to as the main reason behind the cold relations.
That none of these gestures by Ukraine got a positive reception in Budapest shows that these issues were pretexts for Hungary for its confrontational approach.
The same can be said about some enlargement-related arguments. Hungarian officials have repeatedly emphasized that Ukraine cannot overtake the Western Balkan countries in the enlargement process. Yet blocking the accession talks and financial support for Ukraine could be too costly and consequential for Hungary to be only a tool for it to ensure the start of accession negotiations for Bosnia and Herzegovina or candidate status for Georgia, two priorities of its enlargement agenda.
Orbán knows that time is on his side. Just like him, all the other EU leaders know that the real issue is not the start of the accession negotiations with Ukraine but the €50 billion financial aid package. Hungary can be circumvented on this by delivering the aid through a multilateral intergovernmental format outside the EU framework. But all involved parties know that this would be far from ideal as it would send the message that there is no EU unity behind supporting Ukraine anymore, and that it would make it easier for some other member states to abandon Kyiv.
In case of Ukraine’s EU accession, there is no way around the procedures established in the treaties. The opening of negotiations requires unanimity among member states. This is not a bargaining chip Orbán will waste for a deal that would bring him relatively little, so the rest of the EU should be prepared for a prolonged standoff with Hungary.
Any release of EU funds to Hungary under these circumstances would be interpreted across Europe as a sign of weakness and as another failure to protect the union’s values and strategic interests from Orbán’s blackmailing. And in Hungary it would be seen as the ultimate success of his strategy. As extortion is Orbán’s only foreign policy tool, beside networking with the global far right, the rest of the EU can be certain that he would come back for more and not stop exploiting any opportunity to weaken Ukraine.
The only long-term solution to address the strategic challenge the Orbán regime poses to the EU’s functioning and foreign policy as well as the security of Ukraine is depriving Hungary’s government from its voting right in the European Council via the Article 7 procedure.
While the unanimity among member states necessary to do so has long been argued to be highly unlikely, the political conditions are slightly better today. It would require a serious political initiative, potentially led by Germany and Poland under its new government to overcome an East-West cleavage, with a diplomatic effort to build support and to get buy-in from potential Hungary supporters, like Italy and Slovakia. Even if such an initiative were unsuccessful, the process could influence Orbán’s cost-benefit calculations and moderate his confrontational policies.
The window of opportunity for this is narrow and it will remain open only until a new government led by Geert Wilders takes office in the Netherlands. There might soon be a critical mass of populist-radical right EU governments that would render any attempt to discipline authoritarians like Orbán futile.
EU stakeholders have to ask themselves if they want to face repeated crises caused by Hungary’s regime that wreak havoc for the union’s strategic interest, including providing support essential to the survival of Ukraine. Or whether are they ready to stop worshiping the principle of mutual trust and consent, a sacred cow of EU politics that in the case of Hungary was killed long ago by Orbán.