What can the EU do about its Viktor Orbán problem?

Aside from continuing to withhold funds, the EU is short on options to bring Hungary onside. That’s bad news for Ukraine. 

Ukraine and Moldova’s bid to join the European Union received a boost in November when the European Commission recommended that the two countries should begin the process of joining the bloc. 

In a major enlargement package, the Commission also recommended EU candidate status for Georgia, and the opening of accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina, once the necessary degree of compliance is achieved. 

“Some 10 years on from the beginning of the Maidan protests, when [Ukrainians] were shot because they wrapped themselves in a European flag, we today recommend that the European Council opens accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova,” said Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who hailed the progress both countries have made since they were accepted as EU candidate countries last year. 

“Ukraine continues to face tremendous hardship and tragedy provoked by Russia’s war of aggression. And yet, Ukrainians are deeply reforming their country, even as they are fighting a war that is existential for them. Ukraine has completed well over 90 per cent of the necessary steps that we set out last year,” she said. 

The jubilation in Kyiv (and Chișinău) that greeted the Commission’s recommendation has since abated following recent statements from Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who appears set to use his veto to block Ukraine’s membership talks. 

On December 3, Orbán doubled down, saying that, “The European Commission’s proposal on Ukraine’s EU accession is unfounded and poorly prepared. There is no place for it on the agenda of the December European Council.” 

All EU leaders must approve the Commission’s recommendations that Ukraine and Moldova begin talks at a summit in Brussels on December 14 and 15. 

Orbán believes that the EU must first sign a “strategic partnership” agreement with Ukraine, and that a thorough assessment of the impact Ukraine’s membership would have on the bloc be carried out. 

“If we don’t know [what consequences Ukraine’s membership would have] then we should not start talks,” he said on December 1. A major independent study last month concluded that parts of the Ukrainian economy, such as the IT sector, the metal industry, the defence industry and, above all, agriculture, are already very competitive and would not overburden the EU.

In November, Orbán—who has questioned whether a Ukrainian military victory over Russia is attainable—launched a ‘national consultation’, a kind of non-binding referendum, linking further EU aid to Ukraine to Brussels unblocking funds for his own country. This has led to some suggestions that Orbán’s objections are purely a negotiating tactic. 

In December 2022, the EU froze 22 billion euros in funds allocated to Hungary after deciding it was not complying with rules protecting human rights and the rule of law. The country’s stuttering economy badly needs the money. On November 23 the EU approved 900 million euros in advance payments to Hungary but made it clear any further release of funds could happen only when Hungary meets EU conditions on fighting corruption and ensuring judicial independence. 

The nuclear option 

If a compromise cannot be reached before next week’s European Council meeting, Ukraine (and almost certainly Moldova’s) accession talks are under threat. So is further EU funding for Ukraine. Last week, Gergely Gulyás, Orbán’s chief of staff, said Hungary would not support proposed amendments to the EU’s budget, part of which would provide an additional 50 billion euros in long-term aid to Kyiv. 

Aside from continuing to withhold funds, the EU is short on options to bring Hungary onside. The current Treaty of the European Union (TEU) makes it all but impossible to sideline a member state, while the only legal provision for a state to be entirely disassociated from the EU is the now (in)famous Article 50, which must be triggered by the member state that wants to leave. 

To date, only the United Kingdom has ever done so. 

Nevertheless, provisions for a member state to be stripped of all rights and responsibilities do exist in the TEU, in Article 7. In theory, a country can remain an EU member but lose its almost all of its rights and privileges.  

Known as ‘the nuclear option’ because it was thought that it would only serve as a deterrent and was never designed to be used, Article 7 was facilitated by Austria and Italy as a precaution just prior to the 2004 enlargement that saw a raft of countries, including Hungary, join the EU.  

It includes the possibility of a member being stripped of its rights, including its veto on the European Council. 

However, the crucial, procedural step of determining if a member state is in breach of EU fundamental values, such as democracy and the rule of law, requires unanimity among all other member states. What some EU analysts have referred to as “regional solidarity” usually prevents this.  

When part of Article 7 was triggered for the first time in 2017—against Poland over judicial reform, it was vetoed by Hungary. It was triggered again in 2018—this time against Hungary over breaches of EU values—but was vetoed by Poland. 

Poland is now set to have a new, more EU-friendly government in place within weeks following an election in October which saw its opposition win a parliamentary majority. Slovakia, however, where a government that sympathises with Orbán has in the meantime taken office, would in all likeliness prevent ‘the nuclear option’ from being used. Both countries have seen EU funding withheld, but no further sanctions. 

The EU’s hands are tied

In 2000, when the far-right Austrian Freedom party, led by the late Jörg Haider, entered a coalition government, the other (then 14) EU members imposed sanctions on Austria by freezing bilateral relations. No contacts or ambassadorial meetings at an intergovernmental level were held and Austrian candidates were not supported when EU international offices were assigned. 

At the time, Article 7 could not be brought into play as it did not enter into force until February 2003. 

But the sanctions were lifted within months, in large part because of a backlash against the EU from ordinary Austrians who felt that they, and not their government, were being punished. 

Now armed with Article 7, even if the EU could push through ‘the nuclear option’ the conundrum it faces is today much the same: Hungarians are overwhelmingly pro-EU. Anything that jeopardises that could be counter-productive. 

Until Orbán is kicked out of office by Hungarian voters (and the country is not due to hold another parliamentary election until 2026), the EU’s hands appear to be tied. Its only real option would appear to be unfreezing Hungary’s EU funding without Budapest making the necessary reforms, but in exchange for Orbán playing ball over Ukraine. That looks unlikely. And that’s bad news for Ukraine, for Moldova, and for every other country hoping to join the bloc. 

Photo: Viktor Orbán at October’s meeting of the European Council. © European Union.

Unlike many news and information platforms, Emerging Europe is free to read, and always will be. There is no paywall here. We are independent, not affiliated with nor representing any political party or business organisation. We want the very best for emerging Europe, nothing more, nothing less. Your support will help us continue to spread the word about this amazing region.

You can contribute here. Thank you.

emerging europe support independent journalism