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CEE Weekly Update: EU breaks through ‘Orban fatigue’.

CEE Weekly Update: EU breaks through ‘Orban fatigue’.

February 7, 2024

Author: Tomasz Obremski

CEE Weekly Update: EU breaks through ‘Orban fatigue’.


Autor foto: Domena publiczna

CEE Weekly Update: EU breaks through ‘Orban fatigue’.

Author: Tomasz Obremski

Published: February 7, 2024

The last European Council in December 2023 came with a partial breakthrough as Victor Orban left the venue during a vote to launch EU accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova. The membership is still a long prospect, so as much as symbolic, it was. More impactful was Orban’s decision to block a massive 50 billion EUR four-years-long aid package under the EU budget. Together with impasses in the U.S. Congress, it is leaving Ukraine with no resources to fight back against Russian aggression. Even Russia’s propaganda has become more optimistic, and Western leaders and opinion makers have started to draw nightmare scenarios of what a Ukrainian loss would mean.

Thus, as January 2024 was full of pessimism, February started with a glimpse of hope on the EU front. Orban was left alone and stepped back as the EU officials, for weeks, were preparing nuclear scenarios for his possible veto. Although the Commission reaffirmed its 2020 declaration to judge Hungarian reforms on a fair basis without political dimension and to monitor and review the package to Ukraine in two years, it is much less than what Budapest was demanding before, as a continuous and annual veto right over the budget or a much softer approach to the rule of law[1].


No Friends Around Hungary

Hungarian leverage did not seem credible, and the EU checked Budapest’s blackmail. Although domestically presented as a victory, the concessions are not significant. Hungary does not have many allies or arguments, and its behaviour – obviously benefiting Russia – becomes increasingly frustrating in Brussels. During the summit, Donald Tusk said that there is no such thing as “Ukraine fatigue”, but there is “Orban fatigue”. According to Tusk, Orban “remained alone,” and if Europe adopts “the Hungarian perspective towards Ukraine, it will lose to Putin”[2].

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico did not block the funds either. Despite his anti-Ukrainian narrative, Fico does not actually conduct an openly hostile policy towards Kyiv. During the campaign, he mentioned the end of supplies, while in the first few weeks of the year, he vowed peace talks with Russia and questioned the suffering of the Ukrainian nation, declaring that there was no war in Kyiv. However, at the end of January, he met with his counterpart, Denys Shmyhal, at the Ukrainian-Slovakian border in a friendly atmosphere. Although there was no joint press conference, both parties signed a cooperation agreement and concluded deliveries of ambulances, humanitarian assistance, and anti-mines vehicles. Fico declared that he would not block the exports of Slovakian military companies or the EU aid package. His rhetoric is targeted at a specific internal audience. In contrast, his alliance with Victor Orban is not anti-Ukrainian/pro-Russian in nature. Instead, it concentrates on minimising the damage for both countries from Brussels over the issues of the rule of law and Art. 7[3]. The fact that such a coalition effectively works in Moscow’s favour is another part of the story.

Moreover, Hungary seems like it is not eager to regain friends, and it will also be problematic on the NATO front. After Turkey’s parliament agreed on Sweden’s bid to the alliance, it remains the last country that has not yet proceeded. A simple parliament vote has been delayed for months. In contrast, the first country (Canada) already voted in early July, and even Erdoğan, at the NATO summit in Vilnius, announced a breakthrough in the negotiations between Ankara and Stockholm. The Hungarian opposition, meanwhile, has used its right to organise an extraordinary seating of the parliament. One of the main points of the agenda was Sweden’s accession to NATO. However, MPs of the ruling Fidesz party did not appear at the venue, making it impossible to have a necessary quorum. Hungary’s holdout, unlike Turkey’s, was not backed by any formal requirements and has been criticised by foreign embassies and envoys in Budapest, including the USA, for missing the opportunity[4]. Instead, Victor Orban invited his Swedish counterpart Ulf Kristersson to Budapest, and while Kristersson accepted the offer, he affirmed no will for negotiations[5]. Previously, Orban declared support for the accession, and it is obvious now that the delay was not linked to Ankara in any way. Thus, his actions are perceived more like desperate attention-seeking in times of growing fatigue and isolation.


The US Aid Fades Away

As much as the European Council’s decision is positive news for Ukraine, no breakthrough is expected any time soon in Washington, which is worrying all of Europe. Jens Stoltenberg visited Washington D.C. to meet with US officials as well as Republican leaders in Congress and to deliver a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a Republican-leaning think tank that is on the frontline of limiting US engagement in Europe[6]. His arguments — that China, Iran and North Korea are watching the US engagement in Ukraine — are accurate but meet a void without more political backing from Europe. The EU leaders, especially from Central and Eastern Europe, should use more parliamentary diplomacy to persuade US Congresspeople to separate Ukraine’s funding from the US border crisis.

In the meantime, House Speaker Mike Jonhon announced a new bill providing aid to Israel alone, separating it from the border, Taiwan, and Ukraine[7]. Joe Biden threatened to veto this[8], which means the political struggle will move further away from Ukraine, putting US-Israeli relations alongside the Mexican border crisis at the centre. The rising threat of China in the public debate leaves Kyiv behind Taiwan at the bottom of the list of priorities. Although the case has not yet been lost, any agreement would now take more time to be reached and should not be expected in the coming weeks.


CEE Becomes More Nervous

With fading prospects on the US package, Europe has to deal not only with burden sharing but actually a burden shift. In the meantime, it seems Brussels is not able to deliver on what it had promised. Last year, the EU pledged one million pieces of ammunition to Ukraine, but it has become apparent that the EU will be able to provide only a little more than half of this pledge. Thus, Czech foreign minister Jan Lipavský suggested purchasing the remaining amount from markets outside the EU, such as those of Turkey or South Korea[9]. Some countries, like France, have been sceptical from the beginning over the acquisition of munitions using European money from non-European states and have expressed this to countries that have been doing so; for example, Poland. However, with the deteriorating situation, the idea might find more supporters, and it will be interesting to see if a change of approach occurs.

The situation in Ukraine is tense as well. Last week, two news stories were spread across the country. One suggested that state officials had stolen 40 million USD dedicated to the purchase of ammunition. The funds originated from state money, not foreign aid, but it still resonated among the allies and worked against Ukraine’s favour, especially with the deadlock in the USA[10]. The second news was a rumour that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy aims to replace leading military personnel, including the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, with whom he has been in an open conflict since at least last summer. Soon after, Zaluzhnyi published an opinion piece on CNN, urging Ukraine to review its military operations and to use its technological advantage on the battlefield[11]. The tensions are rising in Kyiv, and these changes in military leadership should be expected as President Zelenskyy has already officially said in interviews that they are necessary[12].


Author: Tomasz Obremski, Advocacy and Analysis Specialist, Casimir Pulaski Foundation

[1] Sorgi Gregorio, Moens Barbara, and Braun Elisa, “EU Approves €50B Ukraine Aid as Viktor Orbán Folds,” POLITICO, February 1, 2024, https://www.politico.eu/article/ukraine-gets-eu-aid-as-orban-folds/.approve

[2] “Donald Tusk: Orban Musi Podjąć Decyzję, Czy Węgry Chcą Być Częścią UE,” Onet, February 1, 2024, https://wiadomosci.onet.pl/swiat/donald-tusk-orban-musi-podjac-decyzje-czy-wegry-chca-byc-czescia-ue/dc925kg.tusk

[3] Krzysztof Dębiec, “Fico Meets Shmyhal: Slovakia’s Two-Track Ukraine Policy” (Warsaw: Centre for Eastern Studies, January 26, 2024), https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/analyses/2024-01-26/fico-meets-shmyhal-slovakias-two-track-ukraine-policy.

[4] Than Krisztina and Gyori Boldizsar, “US Envoy Piles Pressure on Orban to Ratify Sweden’s NATO Entry,” Reuters, n.d., https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/hungarys-fidesz-wants-swedish-pm-visit-before-nato-bid-is-ratified-2024-02-05/.envo

[5] Lau Stuart, “Orbán Invites Swedish PM for Talks on NATO Bid,” POLITICO, January 23, 2024, https://www.politico.eu/article/orban-invites-swedish-pm-for-talks-on-nato-bid/.o

[6] Mike Glenn, “NATO Chief Makes Pitch to U.S. Conservatives on More Aid for Ukraine,” The Washington Times, January 31, 2024, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2024/jan/31/nato-secretary-general-jens-stoltenberg-makes-pitc/.

[7] Rebecca Picciotto, “House Speaker Johnson Announces ‘Standalone’ Israel Funding Package,” CNBC News, February 3, 2024, https://www.cnbc.com/2024/02/03/house-speaker-johnson-announces-standalone-israel-funding-package.html.house

[8] D. Shear Michael, “Biden Threatens to Veto Bill That Would Help Israel but Not Ukraine,” The New York Times, February 5, 2024, https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/05/us/politics/biden-veto-israel-ukraine-immigration.html.

[9] Joshua Posaner, Paul McLeary, and Barigazzi Jacopo, “Czechs Want EU to Shop Abroad for Ukraine Shells,” POLITICO, February 1, 2024, https://www.politico.eu/article/czech-republic-artillery-weapons-ukraine-european-union/.czech

[10] Isabelle Khurshudyan, “Ukraine Says Defense Officials Stole $40 Million Meant for Ammunition,” The Washington Post, January 28, 2024, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2024/01/28/ukraine-defense-corruption-artillery-shells/.

[11] Valerii Zaluzhnyi, “Ukraine’s Army Chief: The Design of War Has Changed,” CNN, February 1, 2024, https://edition.cnn.com/2024/02/01/opinions/ukraine-army-chief-war-strategy-russia-valerii-zaluzhnyi/index.html.zaluz

[12] The Kyiv Independent news desk, “Rai News: Zelensky Says Leadership Reset Is Necessary,” The Kyiv Independent, February 5, 2024, https://kyivindependent.com/rai-news-zelensky-says-leadership-reset-is-necessary/.rai n