Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 26 December 2023



The West’s self-deception on Ukraine should not extend to Hungary’s Orban

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Brussels on Dec. 14. (Virginia Mayo/AP)

The United States and its allies deluded themselves for years about Vladimir Putin’s intentions, dismissing suggestions that the Russian leader would use force to reconstitute major parts of the former Soviet Union.

When he began pouring troops into Ukraine last year, magical thinking led the West to believe sanctions would bring Russia to its knees — despite the Kremlin’s vast resources and relative immunity to domestic political pressure.

Meanwhile, the West tricked itself into thinking that sloganeering could forge a consensus to back Kyiv — “for as long as it takes,” as President Biden put it — without explaining that sacrifice, setbacks and staggering sums of money would inevitably be needed. Biden’s shift to the phrase “for as long as we can” during a recent news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, signaled the apparent emptiness of that promise.

Europe also deceived itself — and Ukrainians in the bargain — by pledging last March to send Kyiv 1 million artillery shells over the next year. That goal was wishful thinking given the continent’s anemic military production capacity, sapped by decades of atrophy following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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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.

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Orban, a darling of U.S. Republicans, has gutted Hungary’s democracy and made a sham of baseline E.U. expectations of its members: judicial independence, media freedom, minority rights, fair elections and tolerance.

That tragedy, for Hungarians and for Europe, will become farce next summer when Hungary takes over the rotating E.U. presidency, a role that grants Orban agenda-setting powers for a six-month term.

That bully pulpit will afford him the chance to embarrass the E.U. by showcasing his obstructionism, especially on Ukraine. But the broader threat he represents inside the alliance is real owing to the E.U.’s antiquated voting rules, including the requirement of unanimity of all member states on security and finance questions.

This month, Orban wielded Hungary’s veto to block a $55 billion package of E.U. budget support for Ukraine, which would help Kyiv to pay its bills, including soldiers’ salaries, through 2027. He relented on allowing Ukraine to begin talks on eventual E.U. membership — a key step in its aspirations to join the Western family of nations — but one of his top advisers warned that the lengthy approval process would give Orban at least 70 more chances to impede Ukraine’s progress toward that goal.

Europeans might still scrounge the $55 billion, perhaps through individual country-by-country deals with Ukraine. 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.

“That’s an age-old thing,” Daniel Freund, a German member of the European parliament aligned with the Green Party, told me. “Member states don’t go against each other.”

The E.U. did freeze roughly $30 billion in funds for Budapest, citing Hungary’s rule-of-law offenses, but seemed to cave by releasing more than $10 billion shortly before Orban dropped his threat to block talks on Ukraine’s E.U. membership. That looked like a payoff, likely to encourage new efforts at extortion.

Yet even if European officials stand fast by refusing to unlock billions more in funding, Orban is unlikely to be moved. The Hungarian strongman, having already wreaked economic havoc in his country, is unbothered by even worse living standards and growth rates. As Daniel Hegedüs of the German Marshall Fund of the United States explained to me, “his main strategic priority is regime stability; he wants his regime to survive.”

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.

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