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1st Mar 2024

Hungary links Nato vote and EU money in quid pro quo

  • Nato head Jens Stoltenberg and Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin in Helsinki on Tuesday (Photo: nato.int)
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Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán's MPs are going to Finland and Sweden on a mission to claw back EU money in return for Nato "favours".

That was the impression created by Orbán's top diplomat in a Facebook post this week.

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  • Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjártó (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

"How can a country [Sweden] expect a favour [Nato ratification] from us when its politicians continually and repeatedly spread lies about Hungary?," Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjártó said after meeting his Swedish counterpart, Tobias Billström, in Stockholm on Monday (27 February).

"How can they [Finland and Sweden] expect speedy and fair decisions when, during the recent period, all we were hearing is there's no democracy in Hungary, the rule of law is not guaranteed in Hungary [...]," Szijjártó went on.

The minister's words amounted to "obvious blackmail" of the Nordic states and wider EU to unfreeze billions being held back on grounds of Orbán's abuse of rule of law in Hungary, for pundits such as Péter Krekó from the Political Capital think-tank in Budapest.

And Szijjártó's statement came as MPs from Orbán's ruling Fidesz party prepared to travel to Nordic capitals, lending a "transactional" agenda to their trip, Krekó said.

Fidesz has so far named only foreign-affairs committee chairman Zsolt Németh and parliament deputy-speaker Csaba Hende as among those going.

Nemeth is known for being more pro-Nato and Russia-critical than Orbán, rather than a loyalist insider.

Hende is a former defence minister who renegotiated a major Hungarian fighter-jet deal with Sweden.

It remains to be seen what they can bring back from their Nordic tour.

But in any case, they'll have to go quickly to report in time for the Hungarian parliament's Nato ratification vote — due no later than 21 March.

They also have no mandate on paper and while Szijjártó said they might meet Nordic government MPs, the Finnish and Swedish foreign ministries declined to tell EUobserver who the Hungarians might speak to.

The audacity of Orbán's Nato-EU gambit aside, the Fidesz mission was "quite illogical" in protocol terms, Krekó added.

It was "strange", said Ágnes Vadai, the shadow defence minister from the opposition Democratic Coalition party.

"There's no precedent in Hungary for the government to send a one-party parliamentary delegation of this type, so we are entering uncharted waters," she said.

Orbán's irregular behaviour made Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan look classy by comparison, she indicated.

Erdoğan also made unpalatable demands of Finland and Sweden in return for Nato ratification, Vadai said — but at least Turkey wrote them down in a trilateral memorandum, which created ministerial and technical-level talks to resolve issues.

"To make yourself the skunk at the lawn-party in both the EU and Nato at the same time is a weird kind of strategy," Nick Witney from the European Council on Foreign Relations, a London-based think-tank, said on Orbán's game.

The Hungarian parliament will hold a plenary debate on Nato on Wednesday, giving ruling coalition MPs an opportunity to clarify what's going on with the Nato process.

The Turkish-Finnish-Swedish talks will next take place on 9 March — the same day Orbán's MPs might first fly north, according to reports.

All 28 other Nato members have ratified Finnish and Swedish accession.

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg also met Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin on Tuesday to show support for enlargement.

Neither had been briefed by Hungary on the reasons for its ratification delays, they told press.

But amid the swirling uncertainties, Vadai, Krekó, and other Orbán-watchers were sure that if Turkey, Finland, and Sweden strike a deal, then the Hungarian leader wouldn't have the brass neck to stand up against Nato on his own.

"It's great political theatre and good to leave it to the parliamentarians to hold things up while the [Hungarian] government position is still to ratify," said Jamie Shea, a former senior Nato official who teaches war studies at Exter University in the UK.

"But Hungary doesn't want to be the last and if Turkey starts to move I am sure Budapest will speed things up," Shea said.

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