Hungary, long a thorn in Brussels’ side with its “illiberal” ways, is now forcing the EU to show its true colors and openly declare its subservience to the US and NATO.
In the struggle to send billions more to Ukraine, the EU is refusing to allow Hungary or any pretense of rules or democracy stand it the way. Despite Hungary blocking the package, which requires unanimous support among the bloc nations, the EU plans to send it anyway “using various cumbersome alternative mechanisms that don’t require Hungary’s approval.”
Payoffs are going to Hungary in the short term while discussions to change EU voting rules are being reimagined for the long haul, showing how the treaties that have governed the bloc and at least kept up the appearance of democracy are being thrown out in order to continue the all-but-lost war against Russia.
In December, all EU states except Hungary agreed to start accession talks with Ukraine. So what did the EU do? After reportedly grilling Orban for “a few hours” over his opposition, it had him leave the room when the vote was taken. That allowed the 26 EU leaders who remained to approve the measure, which again requires unanimity. The move, which was reportedly spearheaded by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, was highly unusual, as POLITICO EU describes:
The idea that a EU leader had to leave the room to be unanimous is highly unusual. In fact, EU officials and diplomats at the summit on Thursday could not say if Scholz’s move had ever been used before.
Was it just the interrogation conducted by other member state officials and Scholz’s workaround that found a path forward or did the billions of euros the EU released to Hungary in the days before the discussions play a part?
In a move that’s proving increasingly ironic, the EU executive branch more than a year ago suspended roughly 7.5 billion euros in funding to Hungary over concerns about democratic backsliding and the mismanagement of funds. Now, as the EU backslides democratically and continues to shovel money into the Ukraine bottomless pit, it is using those funds withheld from Hungary to pressure it into Ukraine support.
EU countries agreed to lower the suspension to 6.3 billion euros of the original 7.5. They also approved Hungary’s spending plan for its pandemic recovery funds — 5.8 billion euros in grants that have similarly been withheld for more than 18 months. The move was made despite Hungary not meeting the “rule of law” requirements from Brussels. There are still judicial independence and anti-corruption strings attached, but the open secret is that it has more to do with Ukraine support than any of those stated concerns.
While the EU found a one-time workaround on Ukraine’s accession talks, any serious process of joining the bloc would take years, and Orban singalled he will have many more opportunities to block it. Hungary continued to oppose the more than 50 billion in aid to Ukraine. The issue will be revisited at an emergency summit on Feb 1. Orban wants funding for Kyiv to come from outside the EU budget. A further 17.6 billion euros to Hungary remains frozen, a portion or all of which might convince Orban to leave the room again when EU leaders reconvene in February to discuss Ukraine aid.
Watching all this approvingly is Washington.
The EU liberalization efforts – however misguided – are already taking a back seat to NATO and the EU is becoming even more undemocratic in an effort to further NATO goals. As Wolfgang Streeck foresaw back in 2022:
Plans of the EU Parliament and the Commission to cut financial assistance to countries like Poland or Hungary for deficiencies in the “rule of law” will become increasingly obsolete as cultural conflicts between “liberal” and “illiberal” democracy will be eclipsed by the geostrategic objectives of NATO and the United States…Efforts to make financial support for post-Communist countries conditional on their adherence to “democratic values” will come to naught as long as the United States is satisfied with their adherence to NATO and their willingness to fight the good pro-Western fight.
Whatever one thinks about EU efforts to force its “values” on all member states by withholding funds, they are now superseded by NATO’s needs. Orban and Brussels now negotiate euros for Ukraine support – not “rule of law” policies. These “rule of law” deficiencies are increasingly becoming the norm across Europe as nothing is deemed as important as being sufficiently anti-Russian, pro-Ukraine, and increasing defense budgets.
The problem is that while Hungary ups its defense budget to meet the two percent goal for the first time, it is neither sufficiently anti-Russia nor pro-Ukraine. And as the EU continues to dig itself deeper, the number of Orbans is likely to grow, so what is the Collective West to do?
The long term goal appears to do away with EU rules that allow Hungary (or any other irritant) to block any measures against Russia. Washington’s cheering this line of thinking is best summed up by two recent pieces – one in the New York Times and the other in the Washington Post.
The Times story describes Hungary as “disruptive,” unanimity is “a design flaw,” Orban is “more unreasonable, more truculent, more self-confident and more destructive” and “playing a constant game of extortion and blackmail.”
As is common for the hit piece genre on Hungary, Orban’s arguments citing the EU’s sunk cost fallacy do not merit a mention. Also omitted are Hungary’s national interests, which officials there repeatedly point to; 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.
The Times notes that “if Europe cannot solve its Orban problem” it risks “paralysis and fragmentation.” Paralysis and fragmentation are arguably much-needed for Europe at this time rather than marching in lockstep and digging itself into a deeper hole.
Nevertheless, the digging continues, which Washington Post columnist Lee Hockstader (not paywalled) cheers on and argues for the increasingly popular solution to simply change the rules of the game in order to ensure nothing gets in the way:
Europe is now doubling down on its delusions by convincing itself that it can carry on as usual with its defining postwar peace project, the European Union, even as its most basic values are subverted and attacked from within.The risk of that particular self-deception has metastasized largely because of one man: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has made no secret of his intent to destroy Western unity on Ukraine.
It matters little that Orban has driven Hungary’s economy into a ditch, or that its economic output and population of 10 million are tiny fractions of the E.U.’s total. What counts is that Hungary, Putin’s Trojan horse in the heart of Europe, has weaponized the E.U.’s rules on Moscow’s behalf…
But it is folly to think the E.U. can carry on tolerating a veto-wielding tyrant within its ranks. Orban has done damage already; he can and will do more. There are options for neutering him. European leaders could block Hungary’s turn in the E.U. presidency or suspend its voting rights altogether within the bloc. But top officials have balked even at threatening to take those actions…
The E.U. has no mechanism to expel a member state. So if changing the rules to contain the damage Orban can do is what it takes to marginalize him, then it’s time for the E.U. to change them. Let 2024 be the year the West removes the scales from its eyes.
And there are forces in the EU increasingly proposing to do just that. Washington’s woman in Berlin, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, took the lead on such efforts at a November meeting of EU foreign policy chiefs in Berlin. At that gathering she laid out a plan to abolish the current system which assigns each of the 27 countries a commissioner and amending the “unanimity” rule which allows a single member country the ability to veto EU initiatives.
The unanimity rule was originally put in place to ensure smaller countries have a voice, but the design is receiving heavy criticism from Atlanticists now that it is blocking NATO goals.
Lost in the uproar over Orban’s opposition is that the rule is actually functioning as designed. Hungary, a small country, is opposed to the bloc’s continued belligerence towards Russia and is able to throw a small wrench in the war gears. Ideally, it would also present a moment for reflection, but that seems out of the question at the moment.
What also goes unmentioned in the countless articles railing against Orban and Hungary is that not only Hungarians, but European citizens as a whole, increasingly agree with him. According to the latest Eurobarometer survey in August total support for providing Ukraine with military funding has fallen from 67 percent at the outset of the war to 48 percent. That drop has occurred despite a near-total media blackout of criticism of the war – both on the battlefields in Ukraine and the EU’s economic warfare – against Russia.
Notably, Baerbock’s plan does not propose doing away with unanimity across the board but only in “highly sensitive” areas like foreign policy. The effort to end unanimity in foreign policy would, in the eyes of the Baerbocks, deal with this long term problem of any public opposition.
Nevermind that any move to end unanimity would require unanimity, making it a gambit. Not to be deterred, Baerbock says, “We need to take brave, courageous decisions.”
That is likely an argument that it is time to bend the rules in order to change the rules, which is always a possibility, as Brookings lays out here:
France and Germany want to widen the fields where qualified majority voting applies in the council to overcome existing deadlocks, such as on certain areas of common foreign and security policy and taxation. To this end, they advocate the use of the so-called “passerelle clauses” that permit avoiding unanimity in some fields as well as mechanisms of “constructive abstention.” They also have not ruled out “enhanced cooperation” among groups of countries, a procedure where a minimum of nine EU member states are allowed to establish advanced integration or cooperation in an area within EU structures but without the other members being involved.
What unforeseen consequences could this have? Would it not only create more friction and more Orbans over the long haul? How would pesky voters react to the tearing down of the EU democratic window dressing and an open declaration that the EU foreign policy is decided from NATO headquarters in Brussels?
There is also the need, from the NATO perspective, to deal with Orban in the near term, and that has the Orban government increasingly facing off against Washington. The US ambassador to Hungary, David Pressman, has abandoned all diplomatic protocol and is in open opposition to the Orban government.
The US and EU have failed to remove Orban at the ballot box as his governing Fidesz party last year won its fourth general election in a row.The Orban government, having seen what that can mean in other countries, is taking steps to limit any outside efforts to force a change in government.
A bill in Hungary aims to “set up an authority to explore and monitor risks of political interference and recommend changes in regulations. It would also punish banned foreign financing for parties or groups running for election with up to three years in prison.”
The proposed law comes on the heels of the US turning up the pressure dial on the Orban government over its reluctance to toe the line against Russia. That campaign includes everything from slick social media videos and billboards to Hungary’s exclusion from a democracy summit and sanctions on the Russian-controlled International Investment Bank in Budapest. The US termination of its double tax treaty with Hungary just went into effect. In force since 1979, the US said it was ending the agreement due to Budapest’s opposition to a global minimum tax, but even when Hungary eventually got on board with that plan, Washington ended the treaty nonetheless.
US-connected NGOs are reportedly big funders of the political opposition against Orban, which helps explains why the US Department of State is not a fan of the proposed crackdown on foreign financing, releasing a statement that reads in part:
The “Sovereign Defense Authority” could be used to subject Hungarian citizens, businesses, and organizations to intrusive investigations with no judicial oversight, even if they have had no contact with or support from a foreign government or foreign entity. This new law is inconsistent with our shared values of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.
And with that, the story comes full circle back to the EU-blocked funds for Hungary over “rule of law” violations. Presumably a component of the “rules-based international order,” “rule of law” nowadays simply means to do as NATO commands.