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The Orbán feud highlights the EU’s declining authority

Who's a naughty boy? Credit: Getty

January 31, 2024 - 10:00am

An attempt to inflict a punishment beating on a nation has been exposed. This week, an alleged plot by the European Union to savage the Hungarian economy in retaliation for Budapest’s impudence in refusing to support a proposed aid package for Ukraine was leaked to the Financial Times. This, in turn, has forced the EU to deny that the “background note” was official policy, although it has admitted that it was written by someone working for the Secretariat of the Council. Unsurprisingly, Viktor Orbán’s government is gloating, as EU hypocrisy over the “rule of law” now stands exposed, while it was reported this morning that the bloc has made the Hungarian Prime Minister a further offer in the hope of convincing him to drop his opposition. 

That Brussels has an ongoing feud with some of the EU’s more uppity easterly member states is hardly news. Nor do we need a confidential memo to expose that the EU is run by economic illiterates — one only need look at the Eurozone to see that. Nor is the fact that the EU administers beatings to recalcitrant members surprising: the punishment of Greece during the debt crisis of 2015 was a theatre of vindictive cruelty, its brazenness intended to cohere the Eurozone through fear.  

Nonetheless, there are some instructive differences between then and now. The Eurozone itself was seen to be at stake in the sovereign debt crisis of 2015. By contrast, this conflict between Brussels and Hungary concerns the extent of EU support for a non-member state, Ukraine, as Orbán has taken issue with the use of the bloc’s budget to provide 50 billion in aid to Kyiv. 

While the stakes were existential for the Eurozone in 2015, just as they are for Ukraine today, support for Ukraine is not an existential question for the EU. The fact that the Brussels bureaucracy is willing to make it so by considering economic sabotage of its own member states indicates that the imperial centre is floundering and losing its authority. 

However crude the plan, what it reveals is that the EU is shedding the appeal of its hallowed membership precisely at the point when the Union is supposed to be expanding to bolster its eastern and southern periphery against Russian influence. For what is the point of glorifying collective diplomacy if this is how it treats disagreement? 

Plans to wreck national economies make the EU seem like a protection racket rather than a union founded on cooperation and solidarity. Even if the attempt to make the Hungarian economy “scream” will have to be shelved, the European Parliament was actively seeking ways to strip Hungary of voting rights in the bloc.

By hollowing out the benefits of its own membership in this way, the EU is tracing the arc of imperial decline. Rather than transcending the nation-state, it is incubating new nations within it, akin to a postmodern version of the Holy Roman Empire. The question is whether the peoples of Europe are willing to grasp for their own independence. For this process of imperial decline cuts two ways — the more that EU thuggery is exposed, the more hollow national-populist griping about bureaucrats in Brussels sounds. After all, why stay in a club which treats its members so badly?


Philip Cunliffe is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London. He is author or editor of eight books, as well as a co-author of Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit (2023). He is one of the hosts of the Bungacast podcast.

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Mike Downing
Mike Downing
5 months ago

‘Plans to wreck national economies make the EU seem like a protection racket’; my dear boy that’s simply what a customs union is; a rich(er) nations’ club to keep competition at bay.

Pre-Brexit, when I questioned younger people about how the EU is structured and how it actually works, 90% of them had no idea (and no interest either of course).

Smaller countries have to be very smart to get the benefits from the union and yet not become mere underlings (should that be ‘untermensch’?) to the biggest countries in the block.

Boris was terrible in some ways, but when he remarked that the EU had ‘done for Germany what the N*zis couldn’t ‘, he was merely pointing out the truth.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

I’ve given you an uptick but your underlings/untermench query is out of order. ‘servants’ are not normally subhuman.

Pedro the Exile
Pedro the Exile
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

“when I questioned younger people”  my experience is that that this is age irrelevant-most ardent remainers simply have no real understanding of how the UE works constitutionally or economically. They just like the idea of being “European”-whatever that is.-the single market is unfailingly a “good thing”-the euro is also a “good thing”.Generally Brexiteers at least have had more than a cursory glance at how it operates and concluded they don’t like it.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

Why do so many people miss the mark with their criticisms? The EU has many, many faults, but it doesn’t seem to me that the Single Market (advocated by Thatcher) and the Customs Union are high among them.

A customs union is not a “protection racket”. It is a free trade measure. It is quite true that there isn’t entirely free trade with the rest of the world but that’s also true of the US and the UK. Is it actually very likely that abolishing the EU Customs Union would be replaced by opening the doors to zero tariff imports from Africa etc?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
5 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Hi, you’re taking about the old pre-1990s EU. It’s not about trade any more.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago

Classic New Right doublethink. Just like Trump. It’s fine if we break the rules and don’t play along and be as awkward as possible but if you punish us it’s elite liberal oppression [+ reference to undeveloped nation].
Hungary infringes any number of core EU rules (e.g. rule of law. democratic backsliding) but the New Right only whinges when the baddies in the bureaucracy are seen to bend the rules.
They believe that outsiders like Orban or Trump should have some special treatment because they’re the little guy put upon by the liberal elite. Sounds an awful lot like a victim complex to me.
It’s the same thinking that bemoans the investigation into Trump but demands similar treatment of Hunter Biden. Where are your principles?

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
5 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

You are absolutely right; there is only one side on UnHerd and gainsayers are not allowed. You are talking about – discussion – and that’s what we don’t have. My renewal is due on 5th March and it ain’t gonna happen.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago

Same. I’ve been really disappointed with the comments section. Also I found out too late that UnHerd is the ideological pet project of near billionaire so really doesn’t need my yearly subsidy.

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago

I don’t know about that. I am still here. I have to say that being here does occasionally make me feel like a Leftie, although I am by background a Reaganite/Thatcherite.

Daniel P
Daniel P
5 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Nope. I just think being sneaky is evil.

I think coercion on something that is not relevant to the functioning of the union is despicable.

I think the EU was a super bad idea from the outset and unworkable.

I think nation states are entitled to self determination, particularly on their foreign policy.

charlie martell
charlie martell
5 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Germany has broken EU budgetary rules every year for the last twenty. France too. They do it blatantly and laugh at any suggestion that the rules should count for them.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago

as I said: the New Right only whinges when the baddies in the bureaucracy are seen to bend the rules

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago

Germany and France are Big Beasts though. Hungary is a tin-pot little place that (absent the EU) would probably be borderline third world.

Peter B
Peter B
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Historically ignorant. Hungary was an important power in its region for muhc of its history. And Budapest a very advanced city in its region up to WWII. This is part of the problem here – Hungary’s difficulty in adjusting to its diminished European role since the Trianon Treaty following WWI. Not a coincidence that Russia and Turkey behave in similar ways – all struggling to adjust to ex-Great Power status.

R Wright
R Wright
5 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

New Statesmen tier bilge.

Jacqueline Walker
Jacqueline Walker
5 months ago

Why does it sound hollow? Apart from Hungary, the ones doing the griping are not in power. Some, like AfD even face being banned so they do not get into power.

Daniel P
Daniel P
5 months ago

Looks to me like Britain was prescient in getting out when they did.

I will admit, that I have always thought the EU was unworkable and likely to die a slow and painful death. I said with the creation of the euro that that too would prove to be unworkable over the long term.

Britain had the advantage already maintaining its own currency.

It would surprise me not at all to see countries like Poland and Hungary decide to spin off from the EU and form their own alliances and economic blocks.

charlie martell
charlie martell
5 months ago
Reply to  Daniel P

No chance of Poland ever leaving. It’s economy is growing well, but it is overwhelmingly as a result of access to the EU markets. And now Tusk is in charge there, shutting down the press and demonising dissent.

None of it will end well of course.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
5 months ago
Reply to  Daniel P

Naaah, they get too much out of it. What will happen is they’ll just get awkward and use the tools at their disposal to fight off anything they really disagree with.

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago
Reply to  Daniel P

For my part, I would be happy for Hungary to form an economic bloc with Russia.

Andrew F
Andrew F
5 months ago
Reply to  Daniel P

Poland is the country with highest support for EU membership among the member states.
Whatever you might think about EU, in Polands geopolitical position membership of EU has great value.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
5 months ago

“After all, why stay in a club which treats its members so badly?”
Because they’ve watched how painful and protracted Brexit was and know that their own exit is either factually impossible (i.e. if you have the euro) or just beyond any kind of pain threshold which the country might have, either economically or politically.
It’s a bit myopic to pin the ongoing bullying of Hungary on the Ukraine issue. In my opinion, the fears/strategy driving it are broader in scope. The elites in Brussels have understood what I’ve said in my first paragraph and that no-one else is going to leave.
The member states are therefore a voluntarily captive mass that you can shove in any direction and towards any conclusion by means fair and foul – because there is no nuclear option on the table.
Hungary is just the most openly awkward in the group and is therefore subject to the biggest subordination beatings. What issue triggers the beating is irrelevant.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
5 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I normally agree with your analyses, but that reads pretty much like something an onlooker to the Roman Empire might have written c.400AD.
The periphery may not precipitate a collapse of the EU; it will collapse from the centre of power, and then the nation states will have to fend for themselves.

Tony
Tony
5 months ago

I think it is very commendable to support Ukraine against the warmongering Putin. However to cane members who may disagree is not the way to go about it. Hungary as an eastern state is far more vulnerable than western Europe to Russia’s punishment. Their support if any should be secret as they are under far more risk from the power hungry Putin.

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago
Reply to  Tony

Orban would probably welcome Russian tanks.

Sarolta Rónai
Sarolta Rónai
5 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

I am sorry to offend you, but you are a true idiot. I am saying this as a Hungarian.

Chris Van Schoor
Chris Van Schoor
5 months ago

Not only Greece was punished by the EU: Ireland was given a sound thrashing..

R Wright
R Wright
5 months ago

Yes but Ireland is the masochist bottom of Europe.

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

….and Greece deserved it.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
5 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

Unfortunately for the natives, the EUs useful idiots in the Irish government will ensure the demise (and complete assimilation) of their country.

Chris Van Schoor
Chris Van Schoor
5 months ago

‘the more that EU thuggery is exposed, the more hollow national-populist griping about bureaucrats in Brussels sounds’. I can’t make head or tail of this argument. Am I being dense?

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
5 months ago

I think the argument being made is that if the national-populists want to gripe about bureacrats in Brussels, the blatant thuggery of the EU prompts the question as to why they are not [insertcountrycode]-exiting.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
5 months ago

In a truly accountable organisation, heads would (figuratively) roll. Quo usque tandem?

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
5 months ago

While the stakes [a]re existential … for Ukraine today…

The EU’s €50b over four or five years will make absolutely no difference to Ukraine’s fate – Ukraine has lost the war. Never mind how much money you give Ukraine, there are no weapons to purchase, we’ve run out of ammunition to buy, and Ukraine anyway has no soldiers to wield them.
Much better to set the money aside for reconstruction of what’s left of Ukraine once the war is over, and to push for a mercifully quick end to the war.
“NATO will fight this war to the last Ukrainian” seemed like a cynical witticism in 2022; it has turned into a nightmarish truth.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
5 months ago
Reply to  Jürg Gassmann

defeatest twaddle

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

what part of the comment is incorrect?

Peter B
Peter B
5 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

See my comment below for a few clues. Just in case it isn’t obvious.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

Fully agree.
The film “Downfall” should have been titled “Defeatism”.

Peter B
Peter B
5 months ago
Reply to  Jürg Gassmann

Last time I checked the Ukrainians were still fighting. And the Russians weren’t making any progress. And the Ukrainians have taken their own decision to continue to fight for their freedom (God forbid they should actually think or act for themselves – shouldn’t be allowed …).
You’ve been saying the same thing for 2 years now. And yet the war’s still going.
What is it you know that the rest of us don’t ?

Flibberti Gibbet
Flibberti Gibbet
5 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

In the absence of democracy we have no idea what is the prevailing will of the Ukrainian People.
I wonder if the Russians are laying low to deprive the Biden Administration of a military crisis that would permit the US to embark on some extraordinary action in the runup to the US presidential election.
I suspect Putin would prefer to negotiate with the rational business brain of President Trump 11 months from now.

Peter B
Peter B
5 months ago

Not more of this “the Russians aren’t really trying … they weren’t really trying to take Kiev – that was just a cunning tactical fake” nonsense.
You guys really must try harder.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
5 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

The Battle of Kursk, which decided the war, was fought in July 1943. Germany did not surrender, and continued to inflict heavy losses on the Allies, despite Allied air superiority, until April 1945. The horrendous losses the Wehrmacht suffered on the Eastern Front were mostly incurred after Kursk.

Peter B
Peter B
5 months ago
Reply to  Jürg Gassmann

Noise. Irrelevant.
Besides which, the battle of Kursk certainly did not decide the war. What a baizarre idea. The Germans had already lost and were just in denial.

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

For my part, I am extremely grateful that the Ukrainians are fighting the Russians. The Russians need to be fought now, sand they will doubtless need to be fought in 50 years’ time, because they will never be able to be trusted. The least we can do is fund and arm them.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
5 months ago
Reply to  Jürg Gassmann

The money will buy plenty of white flags.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
5 months ago

Mere accession to NATO is dependent on the say-so of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has just graciously approved the admission of Sweden, and of Viktor Orbán, who has still yet to extend such favour. Centrists can and should be attacked on two fronts by reference to the EU’s economic war on Hungary because Orbán was having a stopped clock moment over Ukraine. They want to re-subject us to Orbán’s legislative will in the Council of Ministers, and to that of his partisans in the European Parliament. And they want us to be militarily limited by him due to our being committed to his defence. Why would Sweden want to be in his club? Yet it does, and on our behalf so do Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, and the SNP. All of those therefore also favour at least a very close alignment with the EU legislation to which Orbán, among others, is a contributor. The latest announcement about Northern Ireland has entrenched that alignment for as long as we held on to the place.

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Why would Sweden want to be in his club? Well, because Russia is not all that far away from them.

JOHN CAMPBELL
JOHN CAMPBELL
5 months ago

Support for Ukraine is an existential question for the EU. 

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
5 months ago
Reply to  JOHN CAMPBELL

Why?
Ukraine will end up being a Swiss like independent country between East and West. Ukraine will probably sign an agreement to participate in some kind of special relationship with the EU (agree to some of its laws) to be able to trade with the EU, but will never be a member. It will also sign some trade. agreement with Russia. This all became clear to me after listening to Freddy’s interview with the former associate of Zelenskyy’s.

El Uro
El Uro
5 months ago

Dear Stephanie!
You, like the majority here, are unable to understand the essence of Russia’s war with Ukraine. I have already said here, receiving many dislikes (I don’t care), that Putin and Hamas are identical in their conflicts with Ukraine and Israel. For them, any peace treaty is just a piece of paper that allows them to accumulate forces for a new, much bloodier attack, and the ultimate goal is the destruction of Ukraine and Israel. That is why they look at your politicians and at you, yes, yes, at you personally, and people like you with undisguised contempt.
Sorry, but that’s the truth
PS. By the way, I’m with Orban in this conflict. I may hate him, but here I’m on his side

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

Absolutely correct (well, up until the last line anyway)! Putin and Hamas will NEVER be able to be trusted. Anything they “agree” to will stand only as long as it is in their short term interests.

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago

Why? They want to be in NATO, and they want to be in the EU. Who can blame them with a rogue state like Russia next door.

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago
Reply to  JOHN CAMPBELL

Exactly. The Russian Army is in Ukraine now, but it could be in Poland or the Baltic States soon enough.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
5 months ago

The EU mafia at work. What a nice creation the continent has built.

M To the Tea
M To the Tea
5 months ago

It appears that the EU is realizing that the strategies and approaches historically used in its interactions with African nations and other formerly colonized regions, which often prioritized European benefit, are not as effective or acceptable when engaging with Eastern European Bloc. This situation underscores the need for evolving and adapting diplomatic and economic strategies that are more equitable and respectful of all parties involved.

Pat Davers
Pat Davers
5 months ago

Hungary has a right to a veto until it actually uses it, at which point its voting rights will be withdrawn.
Franz Kafka and Robert Heller, all rolled into one.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
5 months ago

What’s new? The only way an unwieldy half cooked dysfunctional protectionist empire with an unelected bureaucratic core can exercise power over 27 nation states is via coercion of the non compliant. Greece was given a brutal punishment beating. All like France whose people resisted its constitutional formation were punished and ignored. The UK was given a brutal punishment beating for its Brexit defiance, including the ultra cynical weaponisation of the Irish border. Coercion and diktat are its core instinctive M.O (hello vaccinations). Note how this anti democratic thuggish controlling tendency has lived on in our corrupted Remainiac EU Legacy State, as expressed by its EU inspired Net Zero diktat as well as indifference to all popular mandate to close open borders.

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago

I’ve got a suggestion. Kick Hungary out of the EU, and give the EU funds it would have sucked up to Ukraine. Let Orban turn to his buddy Putin for funding.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
5 months ago

de Gaulle said ” Europe is France and Germany, the rest are the trimmings “. The EEC was an attempt to recreate the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne, hence Charlemagne Prize. The HRE under Charlemagne was the last time France and Germany were united. The EEC is French jockey on a German horse and the civil servants are French in manner. The EU is a bureaucratic oligarchy run by France and Germany for their benefit. There is is also a unifying dislike of the English Speaking World.
Eastern Europe are the trimmings of the trimmings as far as French politicians and bureaucrats are concerned.

Michael James
Michael James
5 months ago

When eastern and southern Europeans take control of the EU, it could be worth the UK considering rejoining it.