Viktor Orbán benefits from EU and NATO membership while undermining these organizations’ core values. Hungary’s allies must find ways to restrain Budapest and not be held hostage.
March 30, 2023
At this point Hungary is the EU country that most closely resembles an autocracy. Anybody who has studied Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s rule will agree that Hungary has evolved into a political machine run by one man. The question should therefore be: who can rely on Mr. Orbán? The simple answer is: only Mr. Orban himself. He seems to be in politics for his own gain and it is fair to say that he is the loose cannon within NATO and the EU.
Successive EU leaders as well as Angela Merkel during her sixteen-year-tenure as German chancellor had chosen not to intervene in the dismantling of Hungarian democracy. Negligence allowed his rise. Still, the Hungarian system has its vulnerabilities. It relies on cash flow from Brussels to finance the cronyism in Budapest. Brussels has to decide how much longer it will feed Mr. Orbán’s regime.
Within NATO, time is ripe for Washington to step up its pressure on Budapest. A concerted effort of the United States and the EU could help to restrain Mr. Orban. To the benefit of the West, it might currently prove difficult for him to turn to his friends in Beijing and Moscow for financial help and political support.
“Whoever thinks he can play off the basic values of the EU to which everyone signed up against the EU’s ability to act on foreign and security policy will fail with this effort.”
That’s what German chancellor Olaf Scholz said in December 2022. His words were directed at Viktor Orbán, clearly one of the most talented European politicians of his generation. George Soros recognized his talents early on and awarded him a generous scholarship to study at Oxford.
Seeing a niche in the political marketplace, Orbán converted from freedom fighter to warrior against liberal democracy, making the building of a corrupt self-styled “illiberal state” his mission and endearing himself to Trumpism along the way. Former chancellor Angela Merkel and German investors such as Audi and Daimler enabled his illiberal turn.
Orbán increasingly positions himself as the Trojan horse of Beijing and Moscow at the EU high table. To quote U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland, Orbán sleeps under his NATO article 5 blanket by night while pursuing his illiberal state with EU funds by day.
So far—as with Finland’s NATO membership bid—in the end he has backed down to larger EU players. It will take a concerted effort to ensure this will remain the case in the future.
Hungary at the moment is reliable only in its unreliability as a Western state. For years, its flirtations with authoritarian states were annoying but of little practical importance. In Viktor Orbán’s infamous July 2014 speech in praise of “illiberal democracy,” he cited China and Russia, among others, as successful examples for Hungary to emulate. But more active steps against Western interests then followed.
From 2018 onward, Budapest vetoed high-level NATO-Ukraine meetings, alleging violations of the rights of the Hungarian minority in western Ukraine. In 2019, Hungary allowed Russia’s International Investment Bank, a communist-era relic that once provided cover to KGB officers, to open a new headquarters in Budapest with diplomatic status for its staff—offering access to the Schengen area for Russian intelligence officers.
Since Russia launched its attack on Ukraine last year, Orbán has blocked the transit of Western weapons for Ukraine; insisted on exceptions to EU sanctions to allow Russian gas and oil to flow to Hungary; delayed EU financial assistance for Ukraine; and called for the war to be frozen along the current front line, leaving Putin in control of a fifth of Ukraine.
The problem is what to do: so far, the other twenty-six EU member states have not agreed to use their power to suspend Hungary’s voting rights; and NATO has no mechanism to do anything similar. So Orbán will remain a cuckoo in the Western nest.
Hungary is no longer reliable—even Budapest’s once close partners in the Visegrad 4 (V4) are losing their patience. To put it bluntly, V4 cooperation has plunged to new lows due to Hungary’s obstinacy.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine remains the most divisive issue in the V4. It is difficult to grasp how a relatively big country bordering Ukraine could refuse to contribute its fair share to restoring peace in Europe, especially as others have assumed considerable risk in doing so. Likewise, how can Budapest flirt with China and even side with Russia on some matters? Despite the romantic perspective that many Slovaks harbor toward Moscow, Bratislava has valiantly taken a stand, even if it has come at the cost of political stability at home.
Looking at the invasion as a threat not only to Ukraine but also the rules-based world order, it underscores the danger Hungary’s equivocation poses to the EU. This values component also explains why Hungary has had Türkiye’s back on Sweden’s NATO membership application rather than siding with its fellow EU countries. Even though Stockholm will ultimately get a green light from Budapest, Hungary will need to work hard to recover its standing in the democratic world.
No. But obnoxious as it often is—behavior even some Hungarian ambassadors are proud of—Hungary is not an entirely unreliable member.
It is a small country at the EU’s and NATO’s external border. It resents its powerlessness, still dreaming of territories lost over a century ago. In fact, its main leverage is its membership of both organizations. Contrary to what Prime Minister Viktor Orbán often states, these memberships do not reduce Hungary’s sovereignty, but enhance it. They provide it with much-needed security and cash, and allow it to have a say—or even a veto—in Brussels among the
truly grand and powerful. This allows Orbán to play above his station from time to time by loudly blocking a proposal or decision, just to annoy the hell out of Paris, Berlin, or even Washington. This irritates other countries. But the folks at home, in Hungary, think Orbán is powerful, standing up against large powers.
Brussels diplomats often point out that 90 percent of the time, Hungary cooperates normally. The rest is posturing—about the word “gender,” Russian sanctions lists, new NATO members, and so on—hardly on substance, but because it can. Once that point is made, Orbán often backs down again, for nothing, and waits for the next opportunity.
Not really. Taking the Finnish and Swedish NATO accession hostage for eight months without clearly communicating the political concerns of the Hungarian government or offering partners a credible timeline demonstrated that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is always ready to exploit questions of European security and collective defense to have leverage on European and NATO partners.
Apparently, Orbán prioritizes demonstrating solidarity with Türkiye, doing strategic service for the Kremlin, blackmailing EU partners with regard to EU funds, and taking revenge on the Swedish Moderate Party for pushing Fidesz out of the European People’s Party (EPP) over collective security and the cohesion of NATO.
So the main question is no longer whether the Hungarian regime is a reliable partner. It is certainly not. The question is how Hungary’s partners address this challenge.
Circumventing the Hungarian blockade of the NATO-Ukraine Commission was a move in the right direction. EU and NATO partners have to set the record straight that vetoing and blackmailing is not an acceptable tool of diplomacy in the given security and geopolitical setup. And they have to ensure that the circumventing of Hungarian blockades and the neutralization of blackmailing is becoming a kind of automatism.
Until recently, Hungary has been viewed by the international community as an unfaithful EU member state due to its use of vetoes and lack of understanding of EU values. Hungary has been perceived as a loyal NATO member, but the delay in ratifying Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership has also raised concerns about Budapest’s loyalty to the transatlantic defense alliance. Prime Minister Orbán has embraced this perception, declaring Hungary to be the “sand in the machine” of these alliances, preferring disruption and obstruction over constructive cooperation. As Orbán increasingly feels sidelined, his behavior becomes more disruptive.
However, the Orbán government does not always behave as an unfaithful member of these alliances. The government generally follows Western mainstream decisions—or does not hamper them—that have a significant impact on the course of conflict, such as EU sanctions, Ramstein defense meetings, NATO decisions, and joint arms procurement. The government only expresses its distinctiveness through rhetoric and less critical, symbolic decisions such as rejecting the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Putin. Consequently, Hungary’s government has a limited impact on the course of events—but at the same time, bears all the burden of its outlierism.
It’s not so much about Hungary as about its strongman. Viktor Orbán has been in power since 2010, and judging from his government’s long-term strategy, he hopes still to be in office in 2030. Increasingly, he has subordinated Hungary’s close relations with its allies to his own global vision—“power and money” and shifting to the East—combined with his transactional approach to foreign policy, revisionist instincts, and a big ego.
Protracted ratification of Finland’s and Sweden’s membership to NATO is just the latest example. In contrast to Türkiye, Hungary had no bilateral demands. Its own ambassadors in NATO and key capitals were kept in the dark about the real timeframe or desired endgame of their prime minister. The whole system of Hungary’s foreign and security policy was waiting for his decision. In the end, he simply followed Türkiye’s lead in supporting Finland and continue to pressure Sweden. What did Hungary achieve in this whole saga? Was it just a small payback for the Nordics’ activism on the EU’s rule-of-law conditionality?
It was a reminder that Hungary’s prime minister cares much more about his standing in Ankara, Beijing, or Moscow than about Hungary’s reliability with its Western allies. Now he is isolated within the EU and NATO but has a plan: cultivating ties with Republicans who could win the White House next year and using Hungary’s EU presidency in the second half of 2024 to influence the selection of top jobs in the EU.
If being reliable means never quitting, then Hungary is totally reliable. But if being reliable means putting the interests of the EU or NATO first, then the answer is no. And Hungarian national interests are simply Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s personal interests.
Hungary benefits from being a member of the most exclusive clubs on the planet because crucial decisions require unanimity and Orbán can leverage his veto for personal gain.
The EU has finally frozen Hungary’s EU funds and Sweden now holds the rotating presidency of the EU’s Council of Ministers which must decide whether to unblock the money, so now Orbán is holding hostage Sweden’s NATO membership until the Euros flow.
Trading insider information for benefits can also help Orbán. Hungary’s foreign ministry was hacked by Russia for years, leaving sensitive information about NATO and the EU open to prying eyes as Russia showered favors on Hungary.
Expect Orbán to leverage his membership—blocking Russian sanctions in the EU or high-level meetings between Ukraine and NATO—whenever he thinks he can get something else he wants. So yes, Hungary is reliable as a promoter of its own interests in NATO and the EU, but its interests may not be aligned with either.
Following the 2008 economic crisis, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán concluded that the dominance of the West was on the decline. He started to court Russia, Türkiye, and China to reposition Hungary as the leading power of the new Central European core and exploit both the Western alliance and Eastern relationships to the maximum.
Orbán’s tap-dance politics proved to be very beneficial for him for a long time. Russia’s war in Ukraine, however, pushed European countries to take sides, but Orbán continued his tight roping. Why?
First, Hungary’s energy dependency on Russia is critical, and he needed time to diversify energy sources. Second, Orbán’s cronies have vested interests in giga-projects run together with Russian state companies, such as the Paks nuclear plant. Third, Orbán uses his veto potential to pressure EU and NATO member states to release the cohesion funds that are frozen by the European Commission. These are tactical steps by Orbán, be they ever so risky for Hungary. In every crisis, Orbán sees an opportunity to take advantage of.
Is he a reliable partner for NATO? In the last twelve years, Hungary fulfiled every NATO criteria dutifully. Be that he is outlier, Orbán is aware of the fact that Hungary would lose its stability and security without NATO and the EU. He plays politics with NATO to extract more benefits from it. Should there be a critical momentum, Orbán would play by the rules. But until someone tells him “no,” he will continue his high-stakes gamble.
While the Hungarian government has so far approved EU sanctions against Russia, its objections and even blackmailing on certain issues—like the insistence on removing Patriarch Kirill from the sanction list, to name but the most obvious case—hardly gives the impression of a reliable ally.
Delaying the NATO accession of Finland and further blocking that of Sweden similarly have no justifiable reason and are harmful from a security perspective. What’s more, none of these steps can even be explained by the Hungarian national interest Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz is so adamant to protect.
A reliable EU and NATO member would stand for the founding values of these communities and would look out for—or at least would not hamper—the security of its allies. In this light, Hungary under the government of Viktor Orbán has proven itself time and again to not be a reliable member of NATO and the EU.
Yet, while it is not reliable, after thirteen years with Fidesz in power, its behavior is rather predictable. We need to anticipate it and ensure we will not be kept hostage by it. Both the EU and NATO have demonstrated steps in this direction.
Hungary is treading a questionable line of adhering to certain strategic elements of a Western orientation, while at the same time compromising key tenets of democracy and the rule of law.
The government of Viktor Orbán, in power since 2010 with a two thirds majority in parliament, has changed and undermined the institutional checks and balances of the democratic system that had been established. Hungary, along with Poland, is subverting the independence of judicial institutions and setting a negative precedent as an EU member state.
It is domestically steering a course contrary to the fundamental values of a pluralistic, open democratic political culture based on tolerance, and the EU has been at pains to stop the regression of Hungary toward illiberalism.
The opposition has managed to win elections in the capital Budapest in 2019 but was severely defeated in the last parliamentary election in 2022. Orban’s regime has predominant control over the media, which allows its populist ideology to spread to the deeper reaches of society. Hungary is defined by Freedom House as “partly free” and ranked as sixty-sixth country out of one hundred. In many regards, it is a captured state.
And yet this state of affairs is possible thanks to billions of Euros of EU structural funds and, to put it simply, the presence of a number of key German automobile factories. Its livelihood depends fully on trade with EU and NATO member states, principally Germany.
The question is how far is Hungary willing to go in the wrong direction, and how long will the EU and NATO be ready to accept Hungary’s highwire act?