In the Cold War dissidents in central Europe would contrive to meet each other in spots that were inaccessible to snitches.
Poles, Czechs and Hungarians met in non-bugged mountain lodges and lakeside holiday cottages to share manuscripts and agree protest letters. These boozy moments helped to ease the loneliness of opposition to communist power and kindle a sense of adventure.
Now that a few of these old dissidents are in power — Donald Tusk in Poland and Viktor Orban in Hungary — not much remains of the former chumminess. That turns out to be a good thing. For too long Orban, who evolved from a long-haired opponent of the Soviet forces in Hungary into an elected autocrat, has been able to count on the support of a nationalist-inclined Poland to thwart the European Union from inside.
The election of Tusk in November and the construction of a (so far) stable, more liberal coalition, has opened up ways of making Europe less feeble at a time of war. And it raises the possibility of levering out Orban, who has positioned himself as Putin’s Trojan horse within the gates of the EU.
Putin has weaponised Orban. The power of the unanimity principle in the EU is such that a single stubborn member can trip up most attempts at coherent strategic decision-making. Latest example: Orban’s blockage of a €50 billion aid package for Ukraine, money that it needs to survive as a state under Russian onslaught.
Orban is doing this not only to please Putin but because he is betting on a Donald Trump victory in November. It is a way to position himself as a go-to European friend for an American leader who has already expressed a lack of enthusiasm for the Ukrainian cause. And he is, of course, determined to twist as much as he can out of the EU for even a minimal concession on Ukraine.
This gamesmanship was made possible by the knowledge that Poland under a Law and Justice party government would always publicly stand with Orban, even when it disagreed with him over Vlodymyr Zelensky’s war effort. Its replacement by the Tusk administration has changed that calculation.
The next European summit is due in a few weeks and Orban is already shifting ground to present himself as more amenable. He has hinted that he might lift his blanket veto on Ukrainian aid if the European Council unanimously approves funding on a yearly basis — that is, €12.5 billion of grants and loans every year for the next four years.
But his intention is plain: Orban wants the bargaining muscle of an annual veto over Ukraine funding in return for extracting regular cash for Hungary. Russia, too, likes the idea of Kyiv being kept on a drip feed by the EU and the US; it erodes the fighting spirit. So, once again, spasibo Viktor.
Tusk’s Poland, although it may be cramped by coalition infighting, should use the frustration with Orban to shift away from pretending the East is the fulcrum of Europe and breathe new life into what used to be known as the Weimar Triangle, a security-conscious axis of Paris, Berlin and Warsaw.
After some dithering, the German government of Olaf Scholz has emerged as the biggest European donor to Ukraine (€17.1 billion compared with France’s measly €0.54 billion) and is at last acting as the continental central power. If President Macron can be pressed to boost France’s contribution an alliance that includes Poland — with a rapidly expanding army and as a clear champion of the Baltic states — could become what the EU needs at a time when the US is in flux and Russia is on the march.
Tusk, although scorned as a German patsy by Law and Justice-controlled state media, understands that stabilising Europe hinges on the West sharing full responsibility for the security of the East. But the picture is not complete as long as Putin has his spoiler in place. Some urgency has crept into the Orban problem.
Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, has, in the most remarkable act of a bland career, decided to leave office so he can campaign for a seat in the European parliament. Remarkable, because it could leave Orban in charge of the agenda as head of the country holding the rotating president of the EU between July and December 2024. The arsonist in the gunpowder store.
Suddenly, requests are being submitted to have Orban’s Hungary suspended from the EU under Article 7(2) of the European Union treaty. This procedure has never been launched before — it is supposed to be invoked when a country commits a “serious and persistent breach of EU values” and could lead to a suspension of voting rights, which is the closest the EU can come to booting out a member. It doesn’t look very likely to happen. Nine member states or the Commission need to propose and the European parliament has to approve with a two-thirds majority.
But discontent is spreading about Hungary’s treatment of minorities, politicisation of courts, LGBT discrimination and Orban’s blatant courting of Putin. In a BBC interview, Orban was asked: “You don’t support Ukraine using military means to defend its territory?” His jaw-dropping reply: “That’s right.”
Until now Orban has argued that he, in tandem with Poland, spoke for a broad under-represented segment of traditional, patriotic and religious opinion stifled by Euroclub conformism. Now the tandem has become a wobbling unicycle.
For many, Orban has become more frightening than Brexit. He wants to unravel the concept of a liberal Europe entirely, and his dark ally is Putin. He should go; if not at the diktat of Brussels then at the behest of his exhausted voters. Evict Viktor.