Orbán is Lonelier Than Ever on the European Stage – But He’s Still Got Cards to Play


The defeat of Poland’s Law and Justice party and Turkey moving towards ratifying Sweden’s Nato bid have further isolated Hungary’s PM

Viktor Orbán is more isolated than ever – but he is still fuelling frustrations across Europe.

The Hungarian leader, one of Europe’s most prominent far-right politicians, has long been an outlier on the European stage. But, as he arrives in Brussels on Thursday for a summit of EU leaders, he will be even more lonely than usual.

The conservative Law and Justice party lost a key election in Poland this month, leaving Budapest largely on its own in its fight with Brussels over respect for democratic norms.

Meanwhile, Turkey has taken a step toward ratifying Sweden’s Nato membership bid, putting a harsh spotlight on Hungary’s reluctance to sign off.

And a recent meeting between Orbán and Vladimir Putin has added to growing discomfort among European officials who see Hungary’s friendly ties to Moscow and Beijing as out of step with and even damaging to the western alliance.

The Hungarian prime minister “tries to keep up a role as the ‘bridgehead’ between the west and the east”, said Péter Krekó, the director of the Budapest-based Political Capital research institute.

Orbán wanted to maximise “the benefits of relationships in both directions – despite increasingly obvious signs that it is impossible in the current geopolitical reality”, he added.

But, far from backtracking, the Hungarian leader has only upped this rhetoric in recent days, pointing his ire at European institutions. “Moscow was a tragedy; Brussels is a bad contemporary parody,” he said in a speech on Monday during a commemoration of Hungary’s 1956 uprising against the Soviet Union.

“Moscow was beyond repair, but Brussels and the European Union can be repaired,” he said, pointing to next year’s European parliament elections.

The rhetoric has not gone unnoticed, with senior European officials saying they believe Budapest’s behaviour is becoming a bigger concern.

“The recent meeting of Orbán with Putin in Beijing and the way the Hungarian prime minister likened the EU to the Soviet Union raises questions over whether we can still trust this country as an ally and as a partner,” said one senior European diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

The problems with Hungary “will likely become deeper and deeper and increasingly endanger common decision

A second senior European diplomat said that “Hungary is more and more isolated, because delaying Swedish membership in Nato is negatively impacting security of all allies”.

Orbán has himself acknowledged that he is often on his own.

“The fact of the matter is that here I am the only head of government from the European Union,” he said in a speech at the Chinese government’s belt and road initiative forum in Beijing last week.

“Given the state of the world, it would have been natural for many European leaders to be here. But they have not come,” he added.

But even as he appears more isolated, the Hungarian prime minister – one of Europe’s most experienced heads of government – still has cards up his sleeve.

Hungary is scheduled to hold the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of next year, and there are already concerns in Brussels about how Budapest will use the role.

The Hungarian government is also holding up fresh EU military assistance to Ukraine, and Budapest’s support will be needed for a proposed increase in the bloc’s budget and financial aid to Kyiv.

And while Orbán suffered a major setback when Brussels froze billions of euros earmarked for Hungary over rule of law concerns, there are now signals that at least a portion of the money could be unfrozen – in part as a way to get Hungary to sign off on key financial decisions for the EU.

Some European officials say they don’t think isolation would change the Hungarian leader’s behaviour. There has also been speculation that Robert Fico, Slovakia’s new prime minister, could be an ally for Orbán on some European policy battles.

Asked about the impact of the Polish election, Judit Varga, a former minister who is expected to lead the campaign for Fidesz, Orbán’s party, in the European parliament race, said that the party’s alliances “remain strong and flourishing”.

But behind closed doors, the mood is different.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about the future,” conceded a senior Hungarian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“But what is for sure is there will be a greater risk of being isolated in the future,” they added.

Orbán’s critics, meanwhile, say there should be no concessions.

“He’s blocking Swedish Nato accession. He’s shaking hands with Putin. He’s comparing the EU to the murderous dictatorship of the Soviet Union,” said the German Green MEP Daniel Freund.

“Orbán delivers sufficient evidence in less than a week that he’s unfit to take over the EU presidency,” he added. “That the EU Commission even considers unfreezing funds to Orbán in this situation is ludicrous.”

Source : The Guardian