Hungarian PM backs down on veto, grants Ukraine a 56‑billion-dollar lifeline: A triumph or political strategy?
The summit's conclusions are strategically essential for the survival of a vulnerable Ukraine and the maintenance of unity within the EU. The Hungarian Prime Minister is conveying a new strategy for the EU elections - a European anti-war alliance.
Orbán: "I encountered resistance"
The stance Viktor Orbán took at the summit was shaped significantly by three factors. Firstly, the exceptional pressure from EU leaders on Hungary. Besides prolonged negotiations with Budapest, threats of taking measures against the country, including stripping it of voting rights in the European Council, became increasingly compelling.
Further influential was the likely "accidental" leak of an EU document published by the "Financial Times". The document discussed the possibility of halting all European funds for Hungary (both Cohesion Funds and the KPO - totalling 34 billion dollars).
The European Union aimed to substantially weaken the Hungarian economy through measures including a currency devaluation and the exodus of international investors. Despite the Council denying the document's existence, Viktor Orbán outlined its potential repercussions as an "armageddon" in an interview for "Le Point". He confirmed its existence and assured that Hungary would not succumb to intimidation.
The third factor was a "plan B", emasculating the Hungarian Prime Minister of his autonomy. According to this plan, assistance for Ukraine would proceed irrespective of whether Orbán maintained his veto. The aid would be facilitated through agreements between the remaining 26 EU countries and Ukraine. This would politically isolate the Hungarian Prime Minister, prompting the Union to examine in depth the situation regarding the rule of law in Budapest.
These "political persuasions" culminated in a unanimous decision about consent to financial aid for Ukraine (from 2024 to 2027) being finalized even before entering the meeting room. As Orbán conveyed in a Friday interview for Kossuth state radio, concerning the 56 billion dollar aid agreement for Ukraine, "he encountered resistance" because the funding would flow without his approval.
Hungarian Prime Minister Announces his Triumph
The Western perception of the summit credits it as a victory for the Union (and Ukraine) and a defeat for Hungary. So how is the outcome being portrayed in Hungary? Opposition press adopted a "Western viewpoint", asserting that Prime Minister Orbán had no choice but to agree to aid Ukraine. Prior to the summit, reports by the HVG portal stated that "Orbán has never felt so alone".
However, an intriguing narrative was constructed on the government's side. The first statement about the Brussels agreement postulated, "Rumors circulating in Brussels suggest that the decision has been accepted as a step toward a Hungarian compromise."
A suggestion made weeks prior by Hungary was that the 56 billion dollar fund would be partitioned into four installments, a decision to be made annually and unanimously by the European Council. In this way, the Prime Minister could obstruct aid distribution to Ukraine each time, possibly in return for frozen funds.
The final agreement does not equip Hungary with this power. However, the Hungarian government argues that control mechanisms have been established along with the right to renegotiate aid. Fundamentally, Orbán's objective was achieved.
The governing party also points to another facet. This is about ensuring that "Hungarian money" doesn't flow to Ukraine. What exactly does this imply? For months, the authorities have been telling citizens that no money is being channeled to Hungary, not because of rule of law issues, but due to a depleted EU treasury that has already transferred funds to Kiev.
The consent from the Hungarian Prime Minister to assist Ukraine doesn't offer a sustainable solution to the Hungarian-Ukrainian dispute. Orbán himself is unlikely to abandon his anti-Ukrainian stance. His goal is not only to safeguard the rights of the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia but also to compel Ukraine to halt the war. Essentially, this goal can be achieved by depriving Ukraine of military and financial support. Viktor Orbán and his foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, define European aid for Ukraine as a "warophobia". The Hungarian Prime Minister points out that his "pro-peace" proposal faced opposition from 26 other member state leaders. The rhetoric now leans towards "Brussels maintaining a war fever".
Nonetheless, Hungarians have a strategy to intensify their "pro-peace" course. They propose to counter the "warophobia" during the impending European elections. "To stand up to the warmongering in Brussels, Europe's citizens must unite," stated the political office director for Viktor Orbán, Balázs Orbán (the shared surname is coincidental). Following the Council's summit, the Hungarian Prime Minister insisted that Hungary does not take part in wars nor supplies Ukraine with weapons.
"There will be peace in Ukraine once there's change in Brussels," Viktor Orbán expressed during his interview with Kossuth Radio. Essentially, he announced Fidesz's new strategy for the EU elections.
The core point will be forging a "pro-peace" alliance, tentatively named the European Anti-War Alliance. Beneath this cryptic title lies a policy aimed at severing Ukraine from EU aid. The Prime Minister anticipates that post-elections, right-wing groups will significantly consolidate their power, prompting fatigue with the ongoing war.
Fidesz needs to find its fitting position within one of the European political families. Since Fidesz left the European People's Party in 2021, Hungarian MEPs from the party have remained unaffiliated. Interestingly, one MEP from the Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP), a Fidesz coalition partner, remains within the EPP. During the Brussels announcement, the Hungarian Prime Minister revealed that following the elections, he aims to join the ECR - the European Conservatives and Reformers, whose core members include, among others, Law and Justice and the Brothers of Italy (led by Giorgia Meloni). Viktor Orbán met with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on the sidelines of the recent Council summit.
Yet both the Polish and Italian parties are invested in assisting Ukraine, making it difficult to envisage a change in this stance. The possibility that Orbán has not entirely dismissed the idea of forming a new bloc cannot be ruled out. However, divergent perspectives on the war situation, finally quashed this initiative.
An alternative approach could entail the ad hoc collaboration of individual MEPs from diverse political groups attempting to influence the European Commission in the European Parliament to be less inclined to support Ukraine. In an ideal scenario, this "anti-war alliance" would garner importance following a hypothetical Donald Trump victory in the US. Orbán maintains faith that under Trump's presidency, the war would cease on day one.