Last week’s summit of European Union leaders was a real emotional rollercoaster for Hungary.
The European Commission agreed for the first time to give Hungary access to €10 billion, part of its frozen EU funds. This is a great success for the Orbán government, for two reasons. Firstly, the country’s troubled economy is in dire need of these funds; but perhaps more importantly, the decision has shown that it is indeed possible to access the funds that Hungary would be entitled to anyway. The unmitigated anger of Guy Verhofstadt, who has based almost his entire political identity on Orbán-hatred, and Daniel Freund, a German Green Party politician whose regular anti-Hungarian rants on Twitter have seen him move from 20th to the ‘prestigious’ 10th place on his party’s European election list, was just icing on the cake.
But the euphoria was soon overshadowed by the fact that, despite the bellicose rhetoric of the past few weeks, Viktor Orbán did not veto the EU’s decision to open accession negotiations with Ukraine. Orbán reportedly left the room at the suggestion of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz as European leaders were deciding on the warring post-Soviet successor state. Although the prime minister’s political staff and the pro-Fidesz press have hailed this as a victory, the exit from the room does not actually seem very glorious—especially in view of the fact that Orbán had said in a podcast on Wednesday that ‘we are not leaving Brussels, we are taking it over’.
‘Hungary does not want to take part in this bad decision: so you do it on your own, and that’s why I left the room’, Orbán explained on Hungarian public radio on Friday morning.
Although Viktor Orbán’s relationship with the European Union and its core countries has traditionally been antagonistic over the past decade and a half, in some respects it is understandable that in the current economic and global political situation the Hungarian prime minister did not risk further deterioration of this relationship by vetoing the opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine at the summit. Hungary needs the additional EU funds, and
while both sides deny that the €10 billion made available last week was the price paid for the withholding of the veto, the timing of events is telling.
The fact that the European Union is now seeking to bail out Kyiv to the tune of €50 billion over four years, almost three times as much as it is refusing to pay to Hungary, also says a lot about the priorities of Brussels and some European governments. Orbán would very much like to prevent this—but has he improved his chances by skipping the veto?
The prime minister is communicating something similar to the public. In a radio interview on Friday, he said that there would be at least 75 points in the negotiations at which the Hungarian government could put a stop to the whole process. But these could also be the very 75 points where the boy crying wolf is ignored by the villagers.
The Eurasian tectonic plate is home to a number of warring countries that are related to Europe only because of this geography, but otherwise have no cultural or political links with it. The fact that Brussels (and Washington) is facilitating especially Ukraine’s accession to the EU is not at all surprising in view of the history of geopolitical games in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, but is devastating for the situational awareness of the Western European core countries and disastrous for the future of the political bloc.
The very European Union that has not been able to integrate the United Kingdom, which has played an inescapable role in the political and cultural history of the continent, could only be able to raise Ukraine to the level of a European semi-periphery at the cost of a real financial and political Pyrrhic victory. Ukraine with its huge agriculture and cheap labour (and its powerful and greedy oligarchy, which is more powerful than that of any other European country, including Hungary), would bring the EU to the brink of ruin without exaggeration. But surely the Central European region, which has been trapped in a ‘race to the bottom’ following the privatizations after the regime changes. It simply cannot be true that ‘Hungary does not want to be part of this bad decision’.
Hungary has a duty to participate in this decision.
The reader can easily dismiss the above line of thought by thinking that the author is just talking from a position of welfare chauvinism. The author can only reply by saying that the history of European integration is in fact also the history of welfare chauvinism. Without exception, the national economies of the countries of Central Europe paid dearly for their membership, as there happened to be some industries left after the decades of Communism, possibly posing a threat to large Western corporations. These industries have since been sold out by their governments to powerful German, French or even Far Eastern investors in exchange for the lowest possible hourly wages and the most enticing tax breaks—a ‘race to the bottom’. In such a race, what small country could stand up to the huge, populous and, above all, dirt cheap Ukraine, where, once the conflict dies down, a red carpet will be rolled out to any investor in Kyiv to get the country’s economy back on its feet?
Hungary has a duty to participate in this decision, but by ‘Hungary’ I mean primarily the people of Hungary, not the Hungarian parliament, which—just to raise a topical issue—gave its unquestioning assent to even Romania’s accession to the EU (with the votes of Fidesz MPs, by the way), a country which has traditionally disregarded the rights of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania.
In several countries of the European Union, the concept of referendums linked to the enlargement of the Union is well known. In 2016, the Netherlands held a referendum on the adoption of the association agreement between Ukraine and the European Union. The majority of voters rejected the agreement, but as it was only an advisory referendum, so the result did not ultimately bind the Dutch government. France’s constitution requires a referendum to be held before any future EU enlargement.
I see no reason why Hungary should not be the next country to have such a plebiscite,
keeping in mind that Fidesz has the mandate to change Hungary’s constitution if need be.
Of course, it is true that Hungary and Ukraine have an extremely poor relationship, for which both sides are to blame—while it is also true that only one of the two countries has passed laws that deliberately put the people of the other nation at a particular disadvantage. It is almost certain that this fact would influence the outcome of the referendum, just as a recent poll shows that the majority of Hungarians do not support Ukraine’s accession to the EU. But ultimately, this cannot be the result of communication by the Hungarian government and the pro-government media alone. It takes two to tango, but even at a dance party, no one is allowed in just because they have previously—rightly or wrongly—collected a few punches in a pub brawl.
Unless specifically requested by the invited guests.