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4th Mar 2024

Analysis

Why concessions to Orbán will come back to bite EU

  • The Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán is expected to hold the EU Council presidency in the second half of 2024 (Photo: European Parliament)
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As the EU hopes to agree on further financial aid for Ukraine, fears are emerging over the concessions offered to Hungary, which risk setting a dangerous precedent and the threats of legal challenges.

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is positive that EU leaders will be able to agree unanimously to provide more financial aid to Ukraine, navigating around Hungary's Viktor Orbán's objections.

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  • MEPs want to take the EU commission to court for its decision linked to the disbursement of €10bn cohesion funds for Hungary in December (Photo: European Parliament)

"I am confident that a solution at 27 is possible," she told MEPs in Strasbourg on Wednesday (17 January).

Bypassing Orbán's veto is, however, not cost-free.

In December, 26 EU leaders managed to greenlight accession talks with Ukraine after German chancellor Olaf Scholz asked Orbán to leave the room.

The move, a first in EU history, came just after the EU commission unblocked €10bn for Hungary, in what was widely-seen as an attempt to buy off Budapest's veto power.

But it was not enough to achieve consensus on a €50bn aid package for Ukraine — now expected to be discussed among EU leaders on 1 February.

In recent weeks, efforts have been made to ensure the EU can deliver on its promise to Kyiv.

Budapest initially wanted all frozen funds linked to its domestic rule-of-law concerns (around €20bn) to be released but is now requesting a check-in by 2025 to lift its veto.

This compromise, however, would allow Orbán to block further aid for Ukraine at a later stage.

MEPs, experts, and campaigners have warned against giving in to such blackmail.

But the current impasse has also triggered bitter criticism from the EU parliament, who are pointing the finger at the EU commission and the European Council for letting the situation unfold.

Useless Article 7

The Hungarian premier and his Fidesz party have faced criticism from various quarters in Brussels, including ministers, MEPs, senior EU officials, and advocacy groups, for what is perceived as a major decline in Hungarian democracy since 2010.

In fact, Orbán's populist policies triggered in 2018 the so-called 'Article 7' sanction procedure, which still remains in place today.

Article 7 could theoretically result in the suspension of voting rights for Hungary, but EU countries have been shy about moving forward — despite no apparent improvement in Hungary's adherence to democratic values and the rule of law.

Although the new Belgian EU presidency has been asked by some MEPs to call for a vote in the EU Council to strip Hungary's voting rights, this remains very unlikely.

"There's an atavistic reflex among EU-27 to protect themselves before protecting the system," Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU law at HEC Paris told EUobserver.

EU member states, Alemanno argues, have been historically reticent in confronting Orbán amid fears over potential repercussions and retaliation against them.

"This self-protective reflex is not only legally-embedded into the EU legal system … but also socially entrenched in European political culture to the point of incentivising — instead of deterring — misbehaviour by Orbán and his alikes," he warned.

Meanwhile, Ukraine itself is desperately in need of an agreement in early February, as the country faces a financial gap for the 2024 budget of about €37bn.

"Just as one nation should not be able to tell Ukrainian people how to live their lives or what their future should look like, one country should not hold the EU at ransom with threats and one-vote vetoes," Svitlana Romanko, founder of the Ukrainian NGO Razom We Stand, told EUobserver.

When asked about giving in to Orbán's demands, she said such compromise could also set "dangerous precedents" for future negotiations.

Echoing the same message, Alemanno said that giving Orbán a potential 2025 mid-term review on the Ukrainian funding would be a mistake.

This all has become even more relevant as Hungary gears up for its upcoming EU Council presidency in the second half of 2024.

Nevertheless, Hungary would be unable to hold the EU helm if it was stripped of its voting rights.

Legal challenge

Meanwhile, the European Parliament is threatening to take the European Commission to court for its decision linked to the disbursement of €10bn cohesion funds for Hungary in December.

With the support of the Socialists & Democrats, the centre-right European People's Party, liberal Renew Europe, the Greens and The Left, MEPs are expected to approve a resolution on Thursday calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the legality of the commission's decision and urging the EU council to strip Hungary's voting rights.

The European Parliament is set to call on the parliament's legal affairs committee to take the necessary steps "to review the legality of the decision … before the Court of Justice," according to a draft resolution, which can still be subjected to changes.

During Wednesday's debate, von der Leyen said that the remaining €20bn frozen due to concerns about LGTBQI rights, academic freedom and asylum will remain blocked until Hungary fulfils all the necessary conditions.

She also explained to MEPs that the decision to release €10bn for Hungary is in response to Budapest's improvements in the judiciary, specifically a new law on justice reform that responds to the commission's concerns included in its 2022 rule-of-law report.

"This was required for Hungary to meet the conditions for cohesion funds. This is what we requested, and this is what Hungary delivered," she said.

But her explanations did not manage to convince some MEPs.

'See you in court'

Dutch Renew Europe liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld slammed von der Leyen for leaving the plenary before the debate was finished and also attacked the commission president's speech.

"She [von der Leyen] defiantly claimed that Orbán had delivered on the rule of law conditions. Now she knows that's not true. She's not fooling anybody, not even herself, but she did set the precedent," she said, warning that Slovakia's prime minister Robert Fico is getting ready to copy Orbán's approach.

Fellow Hungarian liberal MEP Katalin Cseh also slammed the commission for giving in to Orbán's blackmailing.

With this move, she said, the commission has invited every aspiring European autocrat to follow the same "old extortionist tactic".

"He shouldn't have got the €10bn … we'll see you in court," German Green MEP Daniel Freund also said during Wednesday's plenary debate. "We cannot allow an autocratic bully to hold back European decision-making every time he wants to squeeze some more cash out of the commission."

Opinion

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Agenda

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