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‘Quiet quitting’ is wrong response to Orbán’s EU presidency

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin meet in Moscow last week. Credit: Getty

July 11, 2024 - 10:00am

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is making the most of his nation’s role holding the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. This responsibility, typically a dry procedural concern, has now been elevated — in Orbán’s inimitable fashion — into a vehicle to further Hungary’s agenda in opposition to the prolongation of the Ukraine war.

As soon as Hungary assumed the EU presidency, Orbán jetted off on what he called a “peace mission” to Kyiv and the Kremlin. EU leaders poured scorn on his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen claiming that “appeasement will not stop Putin”, while other EU leaders suggested that Orbán is “undermining” the bloc’s pro-Ukraine stance.

The prospect of a Hungarian EU presidency set stomachs churning in Brussels for months, but Orbán’s attempt to forward his agenda has been even more brazen than expected. Despite his making it clear that Hungary’s EU presidency gives him no additional negotiating powers, he will have been gratified by Putin’s words of greeting, declaring the Hungarian leader had come “not only as our partner, but also as the president of the Council of the European Union”.

In response to what they see as a debasement of the EU presidency, a trend of “quiet quitting” is reportedly emerging among EU representatives. “Faceless bureaucrats” are being sent to Hungarian-led EU debates in place of more consequential figures; only seven EU industry ministers turned up to Budapest’s first Council meeting on the important topic of tariffs for Chinese electric vehicles. EU officials say Orbán’s diplomatic trips abroad “certainly play a role” in this subtle form of protest.

This response is clearly counterproductive, and laced with unintended irony. Orbán’s emphasis on opening a dialogue about peace in Ukraine has led other EU allies to turn their backs. Poland has even demanded a discussion of the legality of Orbán’s “peace mission”.

The opening days of Hungary’s Council presidency have served as a microcosm of Orbán’s entire troubled relationship with the EU: fundamental ideological differences leading to disgust among partners in Brussels, refusal to engage with the Hungarian firebrand’s arguments, and threats of legal action.

Yet Orbán isn’t without supporters. Robert Fico — Slovakia’s populist Prime Minister who survived an attempted assassination in May — said that if his health allowed he would have “gladly joined” Orbán in the Kremlin. Former Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš, with whom Orbán recently formed a new EU parliamentary faction, also spoke out strongly in support of the “peace mission”.

For Orbán, “asking questions” of Putin — and Volodymyr Zelensky — is a prerequisite of peace. His stance accepts that the EU and — much more importantly — the USA are responsible for brokering a deal over Ukraine. Most other EU leaders, however, continue to publicly repeat the mantra that “no discussions about Ukraine can take place without Ukraine”.

Orbán sees such assertions as an abdication of responsibility; EU peers view his willingness to engage with Putin as betrayal. In highlighting this fundamental divide in attitudes to diplomacy, Orbán’s “peace mission” may have already achieved its goal. In any case, he has managed what previously seemed impossible: elevating the EU’s rotating presidency to something approaching a hot topic on the global stage.


William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz

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A D Kent
A D Kent
11 days ago

Quiet quitting seems to have been Unherd’s response to the Gaza genocide at the moment. No mention of this weekends confirmation by Haartz of the IDF’s murderous Hannibal Directive.

Orban is right to pursue peace in Ukraine though.

El Uro
El Uro
11 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

What’s wrong with you? Why do you choose the side of scoundrels and murderers in both cases?

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
10 days ago
Reply to  El Uro

I think the Israeli power structure is akin to Russia’s, not the Palestinians.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

How is the Hamas bomb shelter program going? I also hear they are splurging on uniforms next year, so they don’t have to wear civilian clothes when shooting at Israelis while hiding In a crowd of Palestinian civilians.

Jim Haggerty
Jim Haggerty
11 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

What do these folks think is going to happen? Ukraine marching on Moscow? Putin will not lose Crimea as he views it as existential to their survival. Maybe crazy but there you are..
if he uses tactical nukes to change the game will NATO risk WW3?

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
10 days ago
Reply to  Jim Haggerty

No of course the USA won’t risk getting nuked…they will fall only on Europe…that was always going to be the case…

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 days ago

These people are lunatics. Peace begins with discussion. Since when is discussion a bad thing?

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
10 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Indeed Chamberlain was not wrong to talk to Hitler the problem was not talking to him but agreeing to his demands. Orban has no power to agree anything so the only risk is that he gives Putin unwarranted hope.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
10 days ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Germany had a valid case with regard to the Sudetenland. Chamberlain did not agree to the annexation of the rest of Czechoslovakia but there was nothing whatsoever he ie Britain could do about it. The same applied to Poland as was rather effectively demonstrated in 1939…and until the end of the Cold War.
Likewise Churchill could do nothing about the Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe and in fact agreed it at Yalta and in the “naughty document”. This too was “appeasement” and very wise it was. A war with the Soviet Union in 1945/6 would not have gone well for Western Europe or Britain.

Martin M
Martin M
10 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

It would have been fine if the US was involved though. Don’t forget that in 1945/6, the US had “the Bomb” and the Soviets didn’t. Realistically, that was probably the time to deal with the Soviets.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
10 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Operation Unthinkable? I seem to recall the predicted outcome was likely “not necessarily to our benefit”.
Further the USA had very few Bombs (just one or two, I believe but would have to check) at that time and couldn’t then mass produce them. Not exactly a war winning quantity…and no doubt the Soviets knew that.
It is also extremely unlikely that British troops would actually attack Soviet troops or that the British people would support such an attack. The Soviet Union was viewed with considerable sympathy then.
The proposal to arm German troops to assist in such madness was a total non starter.

Martin M
Martin M
7 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

There were those in the US military who thought the Soviets should have been dealt with then, although I can understand why it didn’t happen. I imagine the US could have put together a bomb or two if they really wanted to. After all, the technology existed at that point. At the very least, the threat of nuclear attack might have causes the Soviets to keep their hands off Western Europe. As to sympathy for the Soviets, that was presumably because few in the West realised that they were no better than the Germans.

Martin M
Martin M
10 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Peace begins with discussion, but the broker of that peace shouldn’t be the lap-dog of one of the protagonists.

John Howes
John Howes
10 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

The real lunatics are the useful idiots who believe that a rational discussion can be held with Putin,Iran.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
10 days ago
Reply to  John Howes

So where then does this all end – are we to wait in hope for Ukrainian tanks to storm the Kremlin, and kill the Russian leadership until there’s someone we want to negotiate with? Or do we shun Putin even as the Ukrainians collapse and his tanks overrun Ukraine?
By all means keep shooting until you do have an agreement, of course, but at some point the opposing sides need to start talking to each other, and it may need to be through intermediaries. If Orban, or Erdogan for example, are seen as not being overly committed to one side then they are not useful idiots, but actually useful.
And I think Putin’s rational. It’s just he has different premises.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
10 days ago
Reply to  John Howes

Good to see you’re willing to fight to the last Ukrainian. What’s the outcome here that would satisfy you?

Point of Information
Point of Information
11 days ago

“Most other EU leaders, however, continue to publicly repeat the mantra that “no discussions about Ukraine can take place without Ukraine”.
Orbán sees such assertions as an abdication of responsibility; ”

So in the event of an invasion of Hungary, Orban would be comfortable being left of of peace negotiations.

Oh the humanity!

Jim Haggerty
Jim Haggerty
11 days ago

That’s absurd. Orban has no power to negotiate and he also talked to Zelensky as well. Maybe carrying messages back and forth might help start a discussion between those that have the power to negotiate

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
10 days ago

When might we expect this invasion of your fevered dreams to occur? Putin wasn’t elected yesterday; he’s been around for more than 20 years, spending most of that time doing business with Europe, not attacking it.
Meanwhile, Ukraine WAS party to discussions more than two years ago. Remind us how that turned out.

Martin M
Martin M
10 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

As to Putin’s “doing business with Europe”, I would say “more fool Europe”.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
10 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Not really. Cheap Russian energy powered Germany and therefore the EU. Now it is expensive…and from the USA, much to its benefit.
Could that possibly have been deliberate? German expertise and Russian commodities make for a very powerful economic combination and a threat to US economic dominance.
Instead we now have Chinese manufacturing capacity and Russian commodities…not a great outcome for the West.

Martin M
Martin M
7 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Cheap Russian energy powered Germany, until Russia tried to blackmail Germany by “turning off the tap”. By a stroke of good fortune, the pipeline blew up.

Jim Haggerty
Jim Haggerty
11 days ago

Didn’t Orban also visit Zelensky and Xi in the last few days? I struggle to understand how talking to them is betrayal of the EU. Russia is 4x times larger than Ukraine and has nuclear weapons. What do these folks think will happen? Crimea is a red line for the Russians.. I really don’t like the situation of Russian aggression but reality doesn’t care

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
10 days ago
Reply to  Jim Haggerty

Crimea is Russian anyway

Jim Haggerty
Jim Haggerty
10 days ago

In 1954 the USSR gave it to Ukraine and then took it back by force in 2014. The Ukrainians don’t think it belongs to Russia and they want it back…

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
10 days ago
Reply to  Jim Haggerty

It was not in the gift of the USSR to give

Martin M
Martin M
10 days ago

Russia also sold Alaska to the US. Are they going to try to take that back too?

Martin M
Martin M
10 days ago
Reply to  Jim Haggerty

If you “really don’t like the situation of Russian aggression”, you have to stand up to Russia. If you don’t, Russia will keep taking more and more.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
10 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

It’s not like Putin is 78 and been around for 20 years. Now he begins his world conquest.

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
10 days ago

It would be safe to assume that the Ukraine debacle has lasted longer and cost more than what Putin figured. The real problem is that the West assumed Putin’s adventure was unsustainable and yet here we are. Putin has managed to organize the means and make the necessary deals to stay the course.
Meanwhile, it is the West that faces serious sustainability questions. The expensive Net-Zero fantasy has been damaging enough but add more billions for Ukraine and the political costs are mounting for progressive governments also dealing with spiraling costs of un-checked immigration, inflation, housing shortages and over-burdened and under-funded social services. The home folks aren’t happy and recent election results prove it. Our own virtue-grifter Trudeau is facing political extinction. The biggest domino set to fall is Biden, who barring divine intervention, will be shuffling (lead?) off stage to make way for Trump who almost certainly wants a deal done in Ukraine.
Orban was already a thorn in the EU’s side because his “Hungary for Hungarians” mantra, that has been repeatedly endorsed by the Hungarian electorate, offends the agenda of Brussels progressives. They are doubly miffed by his approach to Putin because it highlights the West’s awkward position.
They misread and misinterpreted Putin’s intentions and once Russia crossed the border misread and misinterpreted his capability to stay there. They bet the farm – and all but guaranteed – on a defeated Putin crawling back home and fighting for his own survival in a depleted and bankrupt Russia. Now we’re in year three and acknowledging the obvious – as Orban clearly has – that the only ‘acceptable outcome’ of unconditional surrender is actually the only outcome that will never happen, is just too much of an ideological climbdown for the Western ‘know betters’ to face. A deal will have to be made.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
10 days ago
Reply to  Walter Lantz

Yes a very good summary of the situation.

Martin M
Martin M
10 days ago
Reply to  Walter Lantz

How can one “misread Putin’s intentions”? He wants to bring all the countries that were previously part of the Soviet Union back under Russian control. That much must be obvious. All that stuff about “no NATO expansion” is just a furphy. Putin recently personally engineered the expansion of NATO by two members, and it didn’t seem to bother him by that much.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
10 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

No it is far from obvious. It is obvious that NATO has expanded both its territorial reach and original defensive purpose.

Martin M
Martin M
7 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Maybe the new members want to come under that defensive umbrella. After all, Russia is still “the enemy”.

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
9 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Sorry. I have to agree with Mearsheimer on this point. Although it may be a pleasant personal fantasy, “Ukraine is just the first target on Putin’s list” seems to have more propaganda value as a justification for Western arms spending than it does as a realistic strategic assessment.

Martin M
Martin M
7 days ago
Reply to  Walter Lantz

Yeah. Just the Sudetenland. Promise….

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
10 days ago

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen claiming that “appeasement will not stop Putin”,
Stop him from what? The man has been in power 20+ years and has mostly done business with Europe, not sought to conquer it. Meanwhile, the laundromat of Ukraine keeps sacrificing its remaining men at the altar of Zelesnkyy’s personal enrichment while NATO moves to surround Russia and hopes no one will notice. It’s hard to take people like this seriously. It’s astounding that they manage to occupy seats of power.

Martin M
Martin M
10 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I think Europe now realises the folly of “having done business with” Russia. Hopefully it won’t make that mistake again.

Martin M
Martin M
10 days ago

I have a low regard for the EU, but if it continues to exist, it should take a careful look at who it admits in future. Hungary is unfortunately already “in”, but the EU should review current applicants using criteria that are not just economic (hint: Serbia should not be admitted). NATO should look at kicking Hungary out. There is no point in a military alliance when one of its members is in league with the main enemy of that alliance.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
10 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

You must work for Raytheon.

Martin M
Martin M
7 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I don’t. Do you think they would give me a job?

Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
6 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

No. For lack of judgement. Do you seriously think that a prime minister from a mini state can travel to Russia without the consent of the hegemon? Is it not a coincidence that the New York Times published the full text inclusive annexes of the draft peace treaty of 2022? A text whose existence was denied by the Western preachers. New York Times suddenly publishes stories about war crimes committed by mercenaries in Urkranian service. The Pentagon generals realise their toys are no longer working: Leopard, Bradley, Patriot, Abrahams all destroyed in the battle field by a country whose soldiers stole washing machines for the chips. The Russians can produce grenades ten times faster and at one tenth of the costs the Americans can. The mortar grenade factory still needs to be built. It is now time to get out of this mess and try to save face as much as possible and leave the Brussels idiots with the mess. Von der Leyen is miffed because she had to queu when visiting China and Orban was received with all pomp and circumstances. After all he leads a country, and VDL just a bureacratic parade. In Novemer at the G20 there will be a peace conference and ROW will decide how to end this. You are watching a Suez crises 2.0, only this time the Americans get told to back off. In the end every country will get the boot. There is justice in history.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
10 days ago

Loved this interview with Orban from Weltwoche – I thought what he was saying was very sensible: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-KbKJfPM1I
No wonder the Brussels guys don’t like it.