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Many believe Viktor Orbán serves as the 'Trojan horse' for Chinese interests within the EU. However, this metaphor is ill-chosen — the truth is that the Hungarian government openly assumes this role, not hiding from the spotlight (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Opinion

What the Xi-Orbán 'all-weather partnership' means for EU

Last week, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Chinese president Xi Jinping signed a strategic agreement that carried an important message not only for the two countries but also for the European Union.

After their meeting, Xi and Orbán said that their two countries upgraded their relationship to an "all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership”.

Among the 18 attached agreements also signed, the expansion of their cooperation in the nuclear industry is particularly notable, although the specific details remain unclear. This collaboration is not new; China has previously stood by Hungary with significant capital, appearing as the country's largest foreign investor last year.

Many believe that Orbán serves as the 'Trojan horse' for Chinese interests within the European Union. However, this metaphor is ill-chosen in light of the above: the truth is that the Hungarian government openly assumes this role, not hiding from the spotlight. Economically, China uses Hungary as a strategic gateway to exploit EU market opportunities, while politically, it effectively applies a divide-and-conquer strategy, while Orbán is a more than willing partner in this.

This relationship may seem particularly troubling considering the global geopolitical tensions, especially the rivalry between the United States and China, and the EU's geopolitical and economic loss of ground.

As China's economic influence grows, for instance, in the electric vehicle market, the timing of Xi's visit was used to announce that BYD is building a massive car factory in southern Hungary.

However, the Hungarian government's policy on China also sheds light on a more profound dilemma.

The "widen or deepen" question has long preoccupied the EU. While it is in the EU's geopolitical, demographic, and economic interest to expand further, many fear that this would cause excessive difficulties in decision-making and operation. Orbán's connectivity doctrine, which includes advocating for Chinese interests within the EU, is particularly troubling in this expansion context.

China, Hungary, and the Balkans

In the Balkans, targeting new candidate countries with Hungarian foreign policy goals could mean that the illiberal practices represented by the Hungarian government might provide new support for Orbán within the Union, which could seriously affect the EU's operation and further serve Chinese interests.

In North Macedonia, the last month victory of Nikola Gruevski's party strengthens Hungarian influence, especially since Orbán provided asylum to Gruevski, a former prime minister, after Hungarian embassy staff smuggled him into Hungary.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the situation is even more sensitive. Milorad Dodik, the ultranationalist Bosnian Serb president, an award given to and accepted by Orbán on the banned national day of the Bosnian Serbs, is a symbol of the close relationship built over the past years - a dubious honor that Vladimir Putin had received a year earlier.

Serbia, the third stop on Xi's tour, has close ties with Hungary, which, in terms of their illiberal practices and geopolitical orientation, could further strengthen the tendency for Chinese interests to be represented within the EU.

These examples highlight how the current political situation in the Balkan countries, mainly due to their disregard for the rule of law, illiberal practices, and eastern connections, poses significant challenges for the European Union in case of a potential expansion. The Hungarian government's strategy to gain allies through potential new members and thus serve its own and Chinese interests could fundamentally affect the Union's future operation and geopolitical orientation.

Therefore, the EU's long-delayed reforms mustn't stall.

Eliminating the veto right in the European Council and strengthening the guarantees of the rule of law are imperative steps that must be prioritized in the coming years if the Union is to continue functioning as a protector of traditional European values and successfully respond to the current massive challenges.

Many believe Viktor Orbán serves as the 'Trojan horse' for Chinese interests within the EU. However, this metaphor is ill-chosen — the truth is that the Hungarian government openly assumes this role, not hiding from the spotlight (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

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Author Bio

Tibor Dessewffy is the president of DEMOS Hungary and a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

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