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Hungary’s Viktor Orban reveals weakness as he folds before the European Union

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For years, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban has loomed over Europe like a continental boogeyman. The long-ruling illiberal leader makes no secret of his distaste for the liberal underpinnings of the European Union’s political project. Orban rails against E.U. censure and criticism over the erosion of Hungarian democracy that’s taken place under his watch. And he has stymied the continental bloc’s ability to muster a robust, collective response to support Ukraine’s resistance to Russia — whose president is conspicuously close to Orban.

Yet events Thursday offered a reminder not of Orban’s outsize influence, but his relative weakness. At emergency meetings in Brussels, Orban relented from previous threats to spike an E.U. plan to deliver $54 billion in aid to Ukraine over the next four years. “The Hungarian leader had pushed hard for the possibility of a yearly veto over the money for Ukraine,” explained my colleague Emily Rauhala. “Instead, leaders agreed to reviews of how it is being spent — with no veto.”

Orban’s climbdown came after he had used a Hungarian veto to block the Ukraine funding package in December. But weeks of negotiations and a tacit pressure campaign against Budapest appeared to have changed his tune. Right-wing Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni, once seen as Orban’s fellow traveler, and French president Emmanuel Macron embarked on delicate charm offensives, according to Politico Europe. Meanwhile, officials in Brussels leaked plans to punish Hungary’s economy should Orban further impede support for Ukraine, and floated other punitive measures including invoking E.U. mechanisms to strip Budapest of its voting rights.

Orban grumbled about E.U. “blackmail” but nevertheless meekly acquiesced on Thursday. European leaders made no apparent significant concessions to the Hungarian leader to bring him on side. The moment illustrated Orban’s isolation: Even ideological allies, like Meloni and Slovak prime minister Robert Fico, who met with Ukrainian officials last week, have softened their positions on supporting Kyiv.

For all his histrionics, Orban needs Europe more than Europe needs him. With his ruling Fidesz party entrenched in power, the Hungarian prime minister has used his platform to inveigh against E.U. edicts and wave the flag of right-wing culture war on the continent. Orban’s antics help polarize the conversation within his country, turning the opposition into would-be abettors of overweening foreign technocrats. All the while, Hungary, one of the more economically irrelevant nations within the bloc, draws vital funds from Brussels as an E.U. member state, though the tap has been partially turned off in recent years over E.U. anger at Orban’s alleged violations of the bloc’s rule-of-law provisions.

“Hungary receives E.U. transfers that in good years can exceed 4 percent of GDP,” explained the Economist. “A mechanism inserted into the club’s budget in 2020 allows it to impose financial sanctions on governments that violate E.U. rule-of-law provisions. These have helped extract concessions from Orban’s government, for example on establishing anti-corruption safeguards. The E.U. continues to withhold funds worth €21bn.”

For some European officials, Orban’s intransigence over Ukraine was the last straw. “There is no problem with so-called Ukraine fatigue,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said as he entered the summit Thursday. “We have Orban fatigue right now in Brussels.” Tusk, a center-right politician and former president of the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive body, is a noted antagonist of the illiberal right both in Poland and elsewhere. “This is for Mister Orban to decide,” he continued, “If Hungary is part of our community, or not.”

Others sense an opportunity to further tighten the screws on Budapest. Orban “has given up his veto, received nothing in return and is completely isolated among the heads of state and government,” Daniel Freund, a German member of the European Parliament from the Greens, said in an email statement. “Member states’ resolute stance towards Hungary has paid off. The lesson from this summit is that Viktor Orban can only be persuaded with pressure and a firm hand. There can be no more financial gifts to Budapest. Now it is time to promote the use of all available instruments for the defense of the rule of law.”

Trump’s favorite European leader does Russia’s work in Europe

President Trump on May 13, 2019, called it an “honor” to meet Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who faced backlash for weakening Hungarian institutions. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Still, Orban has reasons not to be disheartened. Whatever the humiliation endured this week, the political winds may still be blowing in his direction. The specter of former president Donald Trump, a staunch Orban ally, returning to the White House hangs over Europe. A slate of recent national elections in Europe have yielded victories for the far right. Pollsters predict a significant gain for the continent’s far-right factions and anti-establishment populists in European parliamentary elections later this year, and the further shrinking of the continent’s traditional center-left and center-right blocs.

Orban has long seen himself at the tip of the spear of this movement, the first rumble in a tectonic shift in the mainstream politics of the West. His unapologetic nationalism, anti-migrant grandstanding and incessant fulminating against liberal elites have made him the darling of the American right — and even a role model for U.S. politicians desperate for the same satisfaction of cowing the liberal establishment.

“We need a Brussels that stands up for the self-esteem of nations, allows countries to choose their way of life, regulates the market but won’t tell a Pole, a Hungarian or a Portuguese how they should live,” Orban said on Hungarian TV late last year. “Our plan is not to leave the E.U.,” he added. “Our plan is to conquer it.”

That’s still a pipe dream, but Orban has a longer runway to enact his plans than the bulk of his European counterparts. “He is playing a very long game, and has more time than most,” an E.U. diplomat told the Financial Times. “Quite honestly, he is better at playing the game than most, too.”

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