Orbán wields power over EU oil ban – POLITICO
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has rarely been so isolated on the European stage – but he has seized on plans to ban Russian oil to show he remains an EU power player.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the outspoken right-wing populist has taken a softer line toward Russia than other Western leaders, supporting sanctions on Moscow but refusing to send weapons to kyiv and allowing the media of state and pro-government to promote Russia’s war narrative.
This position not only alienated Orbán from other Western capitals. It also put him at odds with his only reliable longtime ally in the EU, Poland’s right-wing nationalist government, and drew the ire of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
And that has exacerbated his strained relations with European institutions, which have long accused Orbán of eroding Hungarian democratic standards. Just last month, that relationship soured further when Brussels triggered a process that could cut essential funds in Budapest because of these rule of law deficits.
But the oil ban plans have given Orbán, one of the EU’s longest-serving national leaders and one of its most cunning operators, the opportunity to once again weigh in on Europe – and to win concessions.
Ever since European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proposed that the EU end all imports of Russian oil, Orbán has drawn political attention, delaying a final deal by demanding more time for his country. before the ban comes into effect.
Thanks to EU rules that require unanimity on such important decisions, Orbán effectively makes the bloc dance to his tune. On Monday, von der Leyen flew to Hungary to discuss the oil ban with him. The next day, EU officials said they were deliberating a financial compensation package for the country.
Although Hungary is not the only country to demand changes to the latest EU sanctions package, it has been by far the loudest, with Orbán describing the oil ban as a ‘nuclear bomb’ for the economy from his country.
The EU has already agreed to give Hungary two more years, but Orbán says it needs five years – and significant EU funding – to make the transition.
“Viktor is a player, now he has a powerful card,” said a former Hungarian official, describing Orbán’s approach to politics.
National victory, international headwinds
Orbán was boosted by a major victory at home last month, leading to a fourth consecutive term with a two-thirds majority in parliament, even though international observers said the campaign did not go down on an even keel. equality.
But he hasn’t done everything his way lately.
Just days after Orbán’s victory, one of his close allies, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, lost a parliamentary election, while French far-right leader Marine Le Pen – whom he openly supported – lost his presidential bid on the same day.
And it all came as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raised embarrassing questions for Budapest over its longstanding policy of maintaining a friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Hungarian leader finds himself in a “more complicated diplomatic environment than ever before”, said Péter Krekó, director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute think tank.
In Brussels, Orbán cannot necessarily count on the support of the traditional regional allies of the Visegrád group of central European countries, where the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland have all taken a much harder line towards Russia than the Hungary.
“You see there has been a huge rift within the Visegrád Four over Russia,” an EU diplomat said.
The war hit the once strong ties between Hungary and Poland particularly hard. A senior member of Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party acknowledged that the relationship had “deteriorated a lot”.
Hardball with Brussels
Yet Orbán has identified where he can still exert influence: major EU decisions.
In an interview with public radio Kossuth Rádió on Friday, he reminded everyone that Brussels needed to listen to Budapest if it wanted to move forward with its most controversial sanctions package to date.
“In this situation, the opinion of Hungary carries as much weight as that of the big countries,” Orbán said. “We need a unanimous decision.”
Hungary is heavily dependent on Russian oil, but officials say there is room for compromise. Brussels has already offered the country an extension. And, according to three EU officials, a financial package could be funneled to Budapest as part of the bloc’s new energy strategy, due out next week, to help end the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. Russians.
Orbán also used the occasion to get European leaders to engage directly with him – the influence he touted domestically.
After von der Leyen made his trip on Monday, Orbán’s team made sure the public knew via his Facebook page.
“Ursula von der Leyen in Budapest,” the post read, along with a photo of the smiling prime minister welcoming the Commission president.
The next day, Orbán also phoned French President Emmanuel Macron, one of Europe’s most influential leaders.
Signs of softening?
While Orbán has taken a hard line on the oil ban, there have recently been signals that he may seek at least a symbolic thaw in his troubled relationship with Brussels, in a bid to release some government funds. EU.
These signs have included the dismissal of an employee of the Hungarian Prime Minister’s office who is suspected of having accepted bribes. The European Commission has made it clear that concerns about corruption were a major factor in its decision to start the process which could lead to a cut in funding.
Orbán’s team is “looking for an exit”, said the senior Fidesz politician, adding that a change can be expected now that the Hungarian elections are over and “they need the money”.
The Hungarian government did not respond to a request for comment.
However, there is no indication that Orbán will make fundamental changes to address concerns about democratic standards, LGBTQ+ rights, and other fundamental issues.
This could leave the European Commission – in particular von der Leyen’s team on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont building – faced with a dilemma: press ahead with possible cuts in EU funds or slow down in hopes to avoid clashes with Orbán on other fronts, especially future rounds of sanctions against Moscow.
The question now, said the former Hungarian official, is “how difficult the 13th floor is”.
Leonie Kijewski and Barbara Moens contributed reporting