The latest flashpoint between the US/EU and Hungary is that Budapest (along with Athens) is blocking the EU’s 11th sanction package against Russia. Both Hungary and Greece want some or all of their countries’ companies removed from a list of “war sponsors” compiled by Kiev. Such a request has proved controversial with criticism coming from all quarters, exemplified by Germany’s pugnacious foreign minister Annalena Baerbock getting into it with her Hungarian counterpart at a recent Brussels meeting.
Now the EU will tomorrow (June 1) look into stripping Hungary of the rotating EU presidency, which it is set to hold next year. Among other duties, the country that holds the presidency represents EU governments in relations with other international organizations and plans and chairs meetings of EU government ministers and other bodies. Germany cited Hungary’s lack of support for the Ukraine war effort as reason for its doubts.
Long at odds with the EU over a host of issues, Hungary has become even more of an outsider in the bloc for refusing to participate in the magical thinking that dominates the zone with regards to Ukraine.
Last week Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban committed the crime of stating the obvious when he told a crowd in Doha that there is zero chance of a Ukrainian military victory. From Daily News Hungary:
“This war is the failure of diplomacy. It should have never happened,” he said. The main question is not “who invaded whom” but to save the lives that would be lost if the war continues, Orbán said. After a ceasefire is negotiated, the issue of a new “security architecture of the European continent” should also be on the agenda, he said.
Orban is also going as far as questioning the entire purpose of the EU nowadays:
Hungarian Prime Minister Orban questioned the need for the EU: The European Union, the modern form of European cooperation, was born with two goals and two missions: peace and prosperity. Today we are at war, and the economic situation and prospects are becoming increasingly… pic.twitter.com/8mezWubrlL
— Spriter (@Spriter99880) May 15, 2023
It’s hard to disagree with Orban’s logic. There is also a domestic political angle to Orban and other Hungarian politicians sparring with Brussels and Washington. As we’ve seen in other places like Turkiye, the harder the West pushes, the more their popularity declines in said country. Support of the EU now stands at just 39 percent (down from 51 percent just last year) in Hungary – one of the lowest levels of member states. Why is the number of Hungarians who approve of the EU plummeting? According to media in the West, it must be Orban’s fault and couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the bloc becoming an insular group run by people increasingly disconnected from reality who insist Hungary do the same. From Bloomberg:
“This is extremely significant and frightening given how quickly attitudes are changing,” said Daniel Hegedus, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “It’s amazing how effective Orbán is in destroying Hungary’s pro-European attitude….
In Brussels, the decline is largely attributed to Orbán’s grip on the media. Indeed, commuters in Budapest are used to seeing political billboards as part of Orbán’s attacks on what he sees as enemies of the state.
But that grip is apparently not so all-encompassing, as Bloomberg mentions the following at the tail end of the article:
While the pro-European campaign is led by ALDE, the umbrella group for liberal parties in the EU, the US is also involved in the counter-offensive. Recent ads funded by the US embassy carry the slogan “Russians go home”, a rallying cry against the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, superimposed on Russia’s current attack on Ukraine.
Because the government controls much of the media in Hungary, the U.S. will continue to reach out directly to Hungarians, an embassy spokesman in Budapest said. Cabinet Minister Gergely Gulyas said on April 12 that the billboards showed that the US was already waging a direct campaign in Hungary.
According to the recent US intelligence leaks, Orban called the US a “main adversary” in a political strategy session, which the CIA labeled “an escalation of the level of anti-American rhetoric in his discourse.” Meanwhile, the US embassy in Budapest engages in acts like posting the following video quiz, which asks viewers to guess whether statements were made by Orbán and his supporters or Putin:
In recent weeks, several senior Hungarian government figures and government-funded commentators have made harsh anti-Western and anti-American statements. Hungary and the United States are Allies. As Russian aggression threatens us all, we must stand together, not move apart. pic.twitter.com/lG1Rmi74tc
— US Embassy Budapest (@usembbudapest) October 17, 2022
Elsewhere, the Biden administration excluded Hungary from this year’s and last’s Democracy Summits, and the US sanctioned the Russian-controlled International Investment Bank (IBB) in Budapest in April; Hungary was forced to withdraw one day later. The US is reportedly considering sanctioning individuals close to Orban and the Hungarian government. According to the the Center for European Policy Analysis, the takeaway from the IBB sanctions is that more of the same – trying to bully everyone into submission – is what’s required:
As Daniel Hegedus, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, noted, Hungary’s actions show it responds to pressure, or at least pressure from the US (as EU action appears to have elicited little response.)
More of that pressure continues to build on Budapest to not only get on board with sanctions, but to also cut off its energy links with Russia. Newly-elected Hungarian president Katalin Novák was greeted rudely during her first visit to Poland last year. According to VSQUARE, the meeting with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki more closely resembled an interrogation. More:
The Poles, for example, checked—and found disputable—claims of the Hungarian government and MOL, Hungary’s state-affiliated oil company, about the exact time it would take to switch oil refineries from Urals-type Russian oil to other types of oil. The Hungarian argument was that it would take between two and four years and hundreds of millions of dollars. But the Polish PM’s experts concluded that this could be achieved in a much shorter time than the Hungarian claims. Morawiecki also confronted Novák with the fact that, even if the Russians shut down the Friendship (Druzhba) pipeline, Hungary would not collapse, because Hungary could replace the lost oil through the Adriatic pipeline from Croatia.
The Polish prime minister and his staff prepared in advance on the topic of natural gas, too. Morawiecki lectured his guest on the various interconnectors and alternative gas routes that, according to his experts, could help Hungary to gradually wean itself off Russian gas if it wanted to. He also mentioned that the Hungarian government signed a long-term gas contract with Russia’s Gazprom in the autumn of 2021, which also did not point in the direction of reducing Russian energy dependency.
Ties between Warsaw and Budapest, once some of the closest in the EU, are now so bad that the Hungarian embassy in Poland is the site of demonstrations, receives death threats and even a package filled with excrement.
Hungary’s refusal to stop importing energy from Russia raises the prospect of the pipeline getting the Nord Stream treatment. Zelensky apparently wants to blow up the pipeline, according to recent reporting from the Washington Post on the Discord leaks, which continue to conveniently trickle out. Was this particular report merely a sign of Zelensky’s craziness or was it also a warning to Budapest?
(The European Commission is denying reports that EC President Ursula von der Leyen proposed to Kiev that it merely shut down the pipeline or at least threaten to do so as a way to pressure Budapest.)
Hungary receives most of its oil via the Druzhba pipeline that goes from Russia through Ukraine. The Russian government previously reported that 4.9 million tons of oil were transported to Hungary through the pipeline in 2022. Oil is also being transported from Hungary to Slovakia and Czechia. In April Hungary also amended a natural gas contract with Russia on friendly terms. Details from the Associated Press:
Speaking at a news briefing in Moscow, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said Russian state energy company Gazprom had agreed to allow Hungary, if needed, to import quantities of natural gas beyond the amounts agreed to in a long-term contract that was amended last year.
The price of the gas, which would reach Hungary through the Turkstream pipeline, would be capped at 150 euros ($163) per megawatt hour, Szijjarto said, part of an agreement that will allow Hungary to pay down gas purchases on a deferred basis if market prices go above that level.
Why is Hungary being so obstinate? Hungarian officials have explained many times; here is a recent summary from foreign minister Péter Szijjártó speaking at the EU-Central Asia Economic Forum. From Daily News Hungary:
He told the discussion focusing on ways to improve the regional business climate that the world had regrettably started moving towards the formation of blocs. “This is the worst possible news” for central Europe, he said, arguing that history had shown that the region always lost out on conflicts between East and West.
When Hungary argues in favour of connectivity and “civilised” cooperation between East and West, it is not because the country is anybody’s friend or spy but because “we are aware of our own national interests and we are aware of our own national experience,” he added.
Again, Hungary is blackmailing the EU …let Orbán leave the EU’s community of values & bring Ukraine 🇺🇦 into 🇪🇺 as fast as possible ! https://t.co/ME0r50rL60
— Guy Verhofstadt (@guyverhofstadt) May 15, 2023
The bloc does not currently have the power to kick out a member state, but it could make life so miserable for Hungary that Budapest could opt to take the exit route. Such a path would be extremely unlikely – at least in the near future. Orbán has repeatedly rejected any such idea, saying that leaving would not make sense because of how intertwined Hungary is with the EU. Almost four-fifths of its exports go to the EU market, and its economy is supported by investment from German companies such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
It’s essentially another Turkiye situation. While Turkiye is in NATO and not the EU, it similarly drives Western officials mad by refusing to pick a side and benefiting from trying to occupy the middle ground (Budapest has also joined Ankara in blocking Sweden’s bid to join NATO), but trying to remain friendly with both sides is becoming increasingly tenuous.
While Moscow and Beijing respect such a position and do not pressure countries to choose a side, the same cannot be said for the West’s current with-us-or-against-us attitude. As German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock recently told her Chinese counterpart: “Neutrality means taking the side of the aggressor.”
As the EU becomes increasingly confrontational with China, it’s only leading to more disagreements with Budapest. Both Hungary and China are on the same page about the need for a negotiated peace to the war in Ukraine, and they’re also working to increase trade ties.
FM Szijjártó: 🇭🇺Hungary secures another €3 billion of Chinese automotive investment, further solidifying its position as the top investment destination in Central Europe. The investments, aimed at serving German car manufacturers, will bolster the European automotive industry.… pic.twitter.com/3rDlxvYpkW
— Zoltan Kovacs (@zoltanspox) May 15, 2023
Such deals are moving against the current in the EU, however, which wants to “derisk” from China while still transitioning to electric vehicles and meeting ambitious climate targets. It’s entirely unclear exactly how it will accomplish both, but Hungary is expected to get with the program nonetheless.