Hungary and the EU are nearing an agreement on money and the rule of law

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Welcome back. The EU is in intensive negotiations with Hungary over the release of billions of euros for Budapest on the condition that Viktor Orbán’s government abides by the bloc’s rule of law standards. It’s just my prediction, but I suspect some sort of deal will be struck, although the road to it won’t be smooth. I’m at tony.barber@ft.com.

A few weeks ago, Orbán celebrated the 66th anniversary of the 1956 uprising against Soviet oppression by honoring the memory of Cardinal József Mindszenty, the Catholic prelate who embodied the thirst for national freedom. Most Hungarians recognize that Mindszenty was an exceptionally brave man and rightly consider 1956 to be one of the defining episodes of Hungary’s 1000 years of statehood.

Budapesters waved Hungarian flags as they demonstrated against the intervention of Soviet troops

Budapesters waved Hungarian flags as they demonstrated against the intervention of Soviet troops in 1956 © AFP/Getty Images

It is more controversial whether Hungary I agree with Orbán’s teaching pulled out of the uprising. He said:

If you are Hungarian you need the courage of the lion, the cunning of the snake and the meekness of the dove.

Does Orbán display these three qualities equally in Hungary’s talks with the EU? A useful summary of the negotiations, tending to the view that they are likely to bear fruit, appears in this comment for Politico by Mujtaba Rahman, Head of Europe Practice, Eurasia Group.

Put simply, Hungary wants to free up €14.9 billion in grants and loans from the EU’s post-pandemic recovery plan, as well as another €7.5 billion in EU regional aid money, which it has slashed over alleged rule-of-law violations, including corruption in public procurement , were retained. To get the money, Orbán’s government will have to comply with EU rule of law demands, or make a real effort to comply.

EU officials are adamant not to throw sand in Orbán’s eyes. But some critics of his arbitrary methods of rule are concerned. In Germany it is the parliamentary groups of the three parties in the governing coalition – Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats to put pressure on the government not to approve money for Hungary if there are doubts about Orbán’s sincerity in handling the rule of law issue.

Meanwhile, anti-corruption groups in Budapest fear Hungary’s “taken, illiberal state” will carry on more or less as usual if the EU isn’t careful. In August, the FT editorial board pointed out that Orbán’s 12 years in power have developed a distorted business model, with large sums of money flowing to companies loyal to the prime minister’s Fidesz party, not to mention people who were childhood friends with Orban.

There are many revealing details about these practices in a newly published book, “Tained Democracy: Viktor Orbán and the Subversion of Hungary“, by Zsuzsanna Szelényi. Along with Orbán, she was a founding member of Fidesz in the late 1980s, but broke with him after he switched from anti-communist liberalism to populist nationalism. Read her book – you can learn a lot.

A peculiarity of Orbán’s relationship with the EU is that, despite all the benefits that come from Hungary’s membership, he spends much of his time attacking Brussels for domestic reasons. For example, he just launched a so-called “national consultation” on EU sanctions against Russia, with the clear aim of showing that Hungarians think these measures are unnecessarily damaging their economy.

Check out the following slogan appearing in a government-sponsored billboard campaign. Translated, it means “the Brussels sanctions are ruining us”:

A woman walks past government billboards reading'Brussels sanctions are destroying us', depicting EU sanctions as a bomb

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has long criticized the EU’s sanctions policy, portrayed here as a bombshell, saying it harms the bloc more than Russia © Janos Kummer/Getty Images

There are also tensions in the relationship between the Orbán government and Washington. That’s what the pro-government media are demanding resignation of two judges because they met with US Ambassador David Pressman – who, like his EU counterparts, is very interested in the independence or lack of independence of the Hungarian judiciary.

in the a brief statementThe U.S. Embassy in Budapest said, “Interference in dialogue with U.S. government officials does nothing to advance U.S.-Hungary bilateral relations.”

Hungary’s skepticism about Western sanctions against Russia goes hand in hand with its reluctance to support Ukraine in the same way as its EU and NATO allies. The government is holds up the latest EU initiative to provide Ukraine with loans raised on the financial markets to support the economy in the national war of self-defense against Russian aggression.

Perhaps this is an attempt by Hungary to put pressure on the EU on the issue of aid money and the rule of law? The thing is, Hungary under Orbán has other grudges against Ukraine, often claiming that the authorities in Kyiv discriminate against the ethnic Hungarian minority in Ukraine’s Western Transcarpathian region.

Map showing ethnic Hungarian population in western Ukraine

For a thoughtful analysis of the status and political prospects of ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine, I recommend Article by Krisztina Lajosi for the European Center for Minority Issues. It is worth remembering that disputes over minorities in Central and Eastern Europe are a major focus of the Kremlin-inspired disinformation campaigns, as discussed in this report created by Political Capital, a research group in Budapest.

One last thought. Hungary and Turkey are the only NATO countries that have still ratified Finland’s and Sweden’s applications for membership. Hungary says she has no objections and will complete ratification when Parliament has time. Viktor, there is no time like the present.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s talks with the EU continue. What do you think? Will Viktor Orbán improve the rule of law in Hungary enough to justify receiving EU funds? Vote here.

More on this topic

Hungarians have different views on democracy under Orbán – Laura Clancy reviews the data for the Pew Research Center

Remarkable, quotable

“It was not an evening that seemed to threaten our democracy” — David Gergen, former adviser to US presidents from both parties, takes heart from the hard-fought midterm elections, the first national contests between Democrats and Republicans since the 2021 attack on the Capitol

Tony’s picks of the week

  • Meta, the company that owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, has laid off more than 11,000 employees, or about 13 percent of its workforce, as the social media giant faced falling revenue and rising competition, the FT’s Cristina Criddle and Hannah Murphy , is struggling in the San Francisco report

  • The EU needs to rethink its enlargement approach and ensure Ukraine’s EU accession process does not get bogged down As in the Western Balkans, Alyona Getmanchuk writes for the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies

Britain after Brexit — Stay up to date with the latest developments as the UK economy adjusts to life outside the EU. Register here

Work on it — Discover the big ideas shaping today’s workplaces with a weekly newsletter from Work & Careers Editor Isabel Berwick. Register here

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https://www.ft.com/content/7d99e4eb-5530-4002-afc0-c47381e4f871 Hungary and the EU are nearing an agreement on money and the rule of law

Adam Bradshaw

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