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'Nuclear option' as last resort: Politico uncovers EU's plans to bypass Orban's veto on Ukraine

'Nuclear option' as last resort: Politico uncovers EU's plans to bypass Orban's veto on Ukraine Victor Orban (Photo: Getty Images)
Author: Daria Shekina

The Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, regularly " pushes the EU to the cliff edge." At the same time, EU diplomats are panicking that his hostility towards Ukraine will "finally kick the bloc over the precipice," and currently, they are looking for ways to bypass Budapest's veto regarding Kyiv at the summit in December, reports Politico.

The article forecasts a "brewing political crisis " that could erupt at the EU leaders' summit scheduled for December 14-15, where "EU leaders are due to make a historic decision on bringing Ukraine into the 27-nation club and seal a key budget deal to throw a €50 billion lifeline to Kyiv’s flailing war economy."

"The meeting is supposed to signal to the U.S. that, despite the political distraction over the war in the Middle East, the EU is fully committed to Ukraine," journalists note.

However, according to Politico, a wrench in these plans might be thrown by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is currently demanding a complete halt to the political and financial process until leaders of member countries agree to a full review of EU support for Kyiv.

"That gives EU leaders a massive headache. Although Hungary only represents 2 percent of the EU population, Orbán can hold the bloc hostage as it is supposed to act unanimously on big strategic decisions — and they hardly come bigger than initiating accession talks with Ukraine," the material states.

Not the first instance

According to Politico, this is not the first time Orban has interfered with EU operations. Journalists cite a previous example where Orban "has been the most vocal opponent of sanctions against Russia ever since Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014."

But this time, diplomats and EU officials are saying things are different, according to comments made to the news agency.

"We are heading toward a major crisis," said one EU official to Politico anonymously. A high-ranking EU diplomat warned that this could become "one of the most difficult European Councils."

Orban is playing the long game, according to Peter Kreko, director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute.

"Orbán has been waiting for Europe to realize that it’s not possible to win the war in Ukraine and that Kyiv has to make concessions. (…) Now, he feels his time is coming because Ukraine fatigue is going up in public opinion in many EU countries," he explains his position.

The ways out of the situation

Theoretical options, as the article notes, include the "nuclear option" on the table - excluding Hungary from EU political decisions. However, member countries believe this "emergency cord" is toxic as it would set a precedent for disunity and fragmentation within the EU.

"or now, the European leaders seem to be taking to their usual approach of fawning courtship of the EU’s bad boy to try to coax out a compromise," Politico states.

Charles Michel, President of the European Council tasked with negotiating agreements among the 27 leaders, leads a so-called quiet soft desire for "softly-softly pursuit of a compromise.' He recently engaged in an intensive two-hour discussion with Orban in Budapest.

"While the meeting did not reach an immediate break-through, it was useful to understand Orbán’s concerns, another EU official said," said another EU official.

Why Orban behaves this way

Some EU diplomats interpret Orban's threats as a strategy to exert pressure on the European Commission, which has withheld €13 billion in EU funds from Hungary over concerns that the country violates EU standards regarding the rule of law.

However, others suggest it's a mistake to solely focus on the direct receipt of funds. The EU acknowledges that Orban has long questioned the EU's strategy toward Ukraine, yet he has largely been ignored.

"We were watching it, amazed, but maybe we didn’t take enough time to actually listen," acknowledged a second-ranking EU diplomat in a comment to the publication.

Orban's isolation intensifies

According to the material, the leader of the Fidesz party, Orban, is increasingly isolated in Brussels. This is aided, for example, by the return of Donald Tusk to Poland, a pro-European and anti-Russian leader. This, as mentioned in the article, "only heightens Orbán’s status as the lonely, defiant hold-out."

"There is no one left to talk sense into Orbán," stated a third EU official, highlighting that this doesn't hinder Orban from "undermining the EU from within."

EU leverage against Orban

As disappointment grows, the EU is currently weighing how to deal with Hungarian threats.

Theoretically, as journalists at Politico write, "Brussels could come out with the big guns" and apply the so-called EU procedure under Article 7 against Hungary, used when a country risks violating the bloc's fundamental values.

"The procedure is sometimes called the EU’s 'nuclear option' as it provides for the most serious political sanction the bloc can impose on a member country — the suspension of the right to vote on EU decisions," the article states.

However, there's fear within the EU of far-reaching consequences. Journalists mention hesitance toward deploying this option against Hungary due to past instances, such as diplomatic sanctions against Austria in 2000, which backfired and led to increased anti-EU sentiments. The sanctions were later lifted the same year.

As Politico notes, there's a prevalent feeling in Brussels that Article 7 could provoke a similar negative reaction in Budapest, fueling populism and potentially, in the long term, even causing a "snowball effect" that might lead to Hungary's unintended exit from the bloc.

Options to circumvent Orban's veto

Taking these concerns into account, diplomats are still trying to find ways to bypass Hungary's veto regarding Ukraine at the summit. One of the options is to divide the €50 billion from 2024 to 2027 earmarked for Ukraine into smaller amounts on an annual basis, three officials informed the publication.

"But critics warn this option would fall short in the goal of offering greater predictability and certainty to Ukraine’s struggling public finances. It would also send a bad political signal: if the EU can’t make a long-term commitment to Ukraine, then how can it ask the U.S. to do the same?" the article explains.

A similar dilemma concerns the planned military aid from the EU.

"EU countries could use bilateral deals rather than EU structures such as the European Peace Facility to send military aid to Ukraine — effectively freezing out Budapest. Yet this would mean that the EU as such plays no role in providing weapons, an admission of impotence that is hard to swallow and hurts EU unity toward Kyiv," journalists emphasize.

Lithuania's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gabrielius Landsbergis, told Politico that "concerns" about the EU's political support for Ukraine are "obviously" growing - "at first it’s Hungary, now, more countries are doubtful whether there’s a path."

Another option

There remains one more option, as Politico writes discreetly, and it's a classic move for the EU: to do everything possible and postpone key political decisions regarding Ukraine to the beginning of the next year. Besides Hungary, for instance, Berlin is currently also grappling with the consequences of Germany's highest court overturning €60 billion from the climate fund, thus creating a huge hole in the budget.

On the other hand, as the maetrial writes, such a delay will also lead to narratives about the EU's disunity, said another EU diplomat. However, "in the real world, it wouldn’t be a problem because the Ukraine budget is fine until March 2024."

"Getting closer to the elections will not make things easier. For Zelenskyy, this is existential to keep up morale on the battlefield," an EU official said, emphasizing that quick decisions are crucial for Ukraine.

Orban's long game

Meanwhile, against the backdrop of the Ukrainian issue, "Brussels is also worried about Orbán’s long game."

Particularly, as Politico writes, a constant stream of attacks on Brussels from Budapest spans issues ranging from a deficit in democracy to cultural wars over the EU's migration policy. The latest example is an aggressive Euroskeptic advertising campaign targeting the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

"Nobody feels comfortable given what’s going on in Hungary. It’s very difficult to digest given the campaign that he’s leading against the EU and against the president. When he’s asking his people many things, he’s not asking if the Union is so much worse than USSR why is he not leaving" said Johannes Hahn, the budget affairs commissioner, to journalists.

However, as journalists note, "Orbán seems more eager to hijack the EU from within rather than jump ship, as the U.K."

"Orban is playing a long game. With Wilders (Geert, member of the Dutch House of Representatives), one or two more far-right leaders in Europe and a potential return of Trump he could soon be less isolated than we all think," said a third EU official.