March 4. 2024. 5:30

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The Brief — Orbán’s hard ball diplomacy


Anyone who has been around the diplomatic block knows that you use almost any tactic at your disposal to get what you want.

When waging her ultimately successful campaign to secure the UK’s rebate from the EU budget, Margaret Thatcher’s main plan of attack was to keep arguing and hectoring until she had worn other EU leaders into submission.

At an EU budget summit in Fontainebleu in 1984, Helmut Kohl made a show of taking a nap, France’s Valery Giscard d’Estaing got his bodyguards to rev the engines of his motorcade. Thatcher made no friends but eventually she ‘got her money back’.

Hungary’s use of blocking tactics on EU aid for Ukraine, the NATO accession of Finland and Sweden and the ratification of the EU’s treaty with the African, Caribbean and Pacific (APC) community come from the same tradition.

The Hungarian Parliament will decide on Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession on 20 March instead of 6 March, delaying accession for another two weeks.

Hungary and Turkey are the only two NATO member countries not to have ratified Sweden and Finland’s accession to the military alliance. In Hungary’s case, ratification has already been delayed for over half a year, despite the fact that Viktor Orban’s government has always said that it supports the two Nordic states’ NATO accession.

The tactic bore some fruit last December when the Orbán government’s threat to block €18 billion of aid to Ukraine quickly led to the European Commission approving Hungary’s spending plan for its post-COVID pandemic recovery funds worth €5.8 billion in grants and reducing the EU funding still at risk of suspension by over €1 billion.

That has not stopped the Commission from continuing to push Budapest for reforms to guarantee the rule of law and judicial independence. Vice-President Věra Jourová said earlier this month that Hungary must sort out the independence of its judiciary “very soon” if it wants to receive €5.8 billion in grants due from the EU’s COVID-19 recovery fund.

Supporters of deeper EU integration will say that this situation is precisely why intergovernmentalism leads to gridlock and that abolishing national vetoes would solve this problem.

However, there is no reason to suppose that Hungary’s tactics will not work again. The block on the ACP treaty – an agreement of relatively low status in the political food chain – is already an acute source of embarrassment to EU officials.

The EU’s determination to preserve a united front in all aspects of its support for Ukraine and those fearing Russian aggression, meanwhile, is a significant source of weakness.

In exploiting that weak flank, Viktor Orbán won’t make any friends. But he probably calculates that that ship sailed long ago.


The Roundup

Mandatory requirements for sustainable public procurement and a voluntary harmonised sustainability labelling system have been ranked among the preferred policy initiatives under the EU’s framework for a sustainable food systems (FSFS) law, according to a leaked impact assessment.

Lawmakers from the EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) community have repeated demands for Hungary to lift its veto on the successor to the Cotonou Agreement which governs economic and political relations between the EU and the 79-country bloc.

Belgian judges on Friday (3 March) prolonged the pre-trial detention of Greek MEP Eva Kaili, accused of receiving bribes from a corrupt network allegedly funded by Morocco and Qatar, for two more months.

In an interview with EURACTIV, EU Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights Nicolas Schmit announced that the Commission would come forward with a legislative proposal to amend the European Works Council (EWC) Directive by the end of 2023.

Do not miss the latest editions of the Tech Brief and the Agrifood Brief for your weekly dose of policy news.

Look out for…

  • Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans and Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson in Saudi Arabia Sunday-Monday to prepare COP28 and meet government representatives for climate and energy discussions.
  • Commissioner Helena Dalli in Bucharest, meets with Iulian Paraschiv, president of National Roma Agency.