Viktor Orbán’s Absence Leaves a Bitter Taste
The European Union historically starts accession talks with the Ukraine, but at the same time fails to agree on a Ukrainian aid package. Hungarian Prime Minister appears to have successfully bullied his colleagues to sell out the democratic soul of the European Union. It cannot be left at that.
Last week, the leaders of the European Union’s member states presented us with what was described as „a historic agreement“ to open accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova. Georgia should be granted the status of an EU accession candidate, announced Council President Michel in Brussels. Let us take nothing away from the historic decision, and particularly its political meaning. It is the clearest signal yet that Vladimir Putin’s aggression against the Ukraine has been completely counter-productive. That in itself is worth throwing a party, even though we know that the negotiations will be long and difficult and that there is no guarantee of success.
Unfortunately, on a closer look, plenty of ifs and buts remain.
Prior to the European Council meeting, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán had announced his opposition both against opening accession talks with the Ukraine and against a €50bn aid package to the Ukraine, both of which have to be agreed by unanimity.
In the run up to the meeting, the European Commission released some €10bn to Hungary, funds that had been blocked because of Hungary’s continuous breaches of the rule of law, presumably to improve Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s mood because so far the necessary changes are only promised on paper and have yet to materialise. As Hungarian opposition Euro-MP Katalin Cseh said: „The European Parliament's thorough assessment revealed a clear discrepancy between proposed reforms and the judicial super-milestones set by the Commission. While some progress has been achieved under EU pressure, it is evident that Hungary does not currently meet the minimum standards of the rule of law“.
As it happened, the required unanimity on opening the accession talks was only reached because at the crucial moment, at the suggestion of German federal chancellor Olaf Scholz, Viktor Orbán left the meeting room purportedly for a coffee break. He thus didn’t vote. Orbán indicated later that he will have plenty more opportunities to veto the Ukraine’s accession in the years ahead.
However, on the €50bn aid package to the Ukraine he did not budge. His lone opposing vote blocked the package. The Council will revisit this topic in January, and hopes to either still convince Viktor Orbán over the December holidays or else construct a separate package with the remaining 26 countries. The question therefore poses itself, whether the release of the €10bn to Hungary achieved anything at all.
Indeed, Orbán has stated that there is no chance of him agreeing to release further funds to the Ukraine, if not yet another €20bn of blocked funds is released to his country, which are currently withheld, amongst others, because of corruption cases. This would meet with great opposition in the European Parliament. German Liberal MEP Moritz Körner commented: „We cannot give Viktor Orbán the opportunity to use corruptly diverted EU funds to keep his oligarch state alive. It would have been more appropriate to organise aid to Ukraine without Hungary, or to withdraw Hungary's voting rights under the Article 7 procedure, as the European Parliament has long been calling for“.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that reaching unanimity in the Council by participants taking a coffee break „…would not become the norm“, but we know how hard it is to stamp out a practice once it is established. If the decisions are more complicated, will the obstructing country leader in question be asked to take a long shower or even a bath?
At the end of the day, Viktor Orbán may well consider himself the moral winner of this episode. Even Russia’s president Vladimir Putin may take solace from the fact that on this crucial issue the European Union shows itself to be divided. Orbán’s closeness to Putin is bad enough as it is. Their well-publicised handshake last October in Beijing led to anger if not fury in many European capitals.
Given the almost Faustian dilemma between supporting freedom for the Ukraine or safeguarding civil liberties in the EU member state Hungary, the Council came out on the side of supporting the Ukraine. After all, Ukrainians are not only fighting for themselves, but for the freedom of Europe as a whole. However, it can just as well be argued that this is a false dilemma, and that both the Ukraine‘s freedom and Hungary’s civil liberties should have been protected. After all, what credibility is left if the interests of the EU’s citizens aren’t paramount, and what signal does it give to the countries currently waiting to join the Union?
Orbán’s success must surely make a strategy of obstruction more appealing to any other member state that has a score to settle. It is therefore of utmost importance that Orbán’s strategy does not work out. The best way to do this would of course be to do away with unanimous voting altogether, but given that this takes a treaty change, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Invoking Article 7 as mentioned by Moritz Körner, that could ultimately lead to removing a country’s voting rights, is long overdue anyway, and should happen yesterday.
And finally, at every opportunity the remaining member states should make Viktor Orbán’s life as miserable as possible whenever he needs something from the EU and use their veto for this purpose. Like his political friends in other countries such as Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, he places himself outside the usual way of working together and therefore it justifies a different approach at the political level. The EPP/Merkel method of patching things up has clearly not worked.
Last week’s little drama was not just about the Ukraine’s accession talks, it was really about preserving the soul of the European Union as a beacon of freedom, civil rights and the state of law. That is why chancellor Scholz‘ seemingly clever idea that Viktor Orbán takes a coffee break leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Jules Maaten, FNF Regional Director Brussels.