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It’s time the EU plays hardball with Hungary

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Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He tweets at @DaliborRohac.

Following the Brexit referendum, many had feared other countries might repeat the British example, eventually unraveling the European Union. But if anything, the United Kingdom’s shambolic divorce proceedings had the opposite effect, tempering Euroskepticism across the Continent.

For one country, however, a departure from the EU might well be the only answer to its deep and irreconcilable differences with Brussels: Hungary.

Hungary and the rest of the EU currently find themselves on opposite sides of the most important geopolitical issue of our time — Russia’s war against Ukraine. “You don’t support Ukraine using military means to defend its territory?” BBC’s Stephan Sackur recently asked Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s spokesman, Zoltán Kovács. His answer? “That’s right.”

Even as Germany and other traditionally vacillating members have now moved in the direction of an oil embargo against Russia, Hungary continues to delay the decision, using arguments that are as inflammatory as they are ridiculous.

“Those who have a sea and ports are able to bring oil on tankers,” Orbán said in a radio interview last week. “If they hadn’t taken it away from us,” he added, referring to the Dalmatian coast, once a part of the Hungarian Kingdom but now part of an independent Croatia and an EU member as well, “we would also have a port.”

Of course, this is not the first time Hungary finds itself at odds with the rest of the EU. From the rule of law through to gay rights, asylum policy and relations with China, Orbán has made a habit of defying the European consensus, earning applause from the likes of American Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

This time is different.

For starters, there’s the magnitude of the problem. Russia’s war against Ukraine is not just another divisive issue. It upsets the most fundamental tenet of Europe’s political order: that national borders cannot be changed by force and that no matter their size, nations do not hold veto power over the foreign policy choices of their neighbors.

The invasion also directly threatens Europe’s security. Should Russian President Vladimir Putin succeed in turning Ukraine into a failed state, or a “people’s republic” of sorts, NATO’s Eastern flank, from Poland to Romania, would become much more vulnerable and costly to defend.

Hungary truly stands alone this time. Yes, some other member countries have also raised objections to the oil ban, but they have not been as intransigent as Hungary. Orbán has even shown himself willing to sacrifice the relationship with his long-standing allies in Warsaw on the altar of the Hungarian-Russian partnership.

As the Hungarian strongman’s glib remark about Dalmatian ports suggests, Russia’s war of imperial conquest finds resonance among those who still look with longing at the map of Greater Hungary — on prominent display in Kovács’s office by the Danube.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán | Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images

Additionally, following the April election, there’s little prospect of any change in Hungarian policies in the near future. The EU simply has to deal with Orbán’s Hungary as it exists, not live under the illusion that the past 12 years have been a temporary aberration. After more than a decade in power, Orbán’s rule has become firmly entrenched, and the opposition is weak, demoralized and leaderless.

The reality is that the EU and Orbán’s Hungary are a bad fit. Whatever one may think of Brexit, it addressed a fundamental tension between what EU membership was truly about and what an important part of the British elite and general public wanted out of the EU.

Similarly, there’s reason to think that the now irreconcilable conflict between the Hungarian government and the rest of the EU cannot, and should not, be resolved through a least-common-denominator compromise, but simply by the two parties going their separate ways.

There is a catch, of course. For all of Orbán’s slogans about “Stopping Brussels,” his power relies on a steady stream of cash from the common European budget. Much like some Tories before Brexit, he wants to have his cake and eat it too.

But that is no reason for the European institutions and governments of the remaining 26 countries to indulge him.  They must turn off the spigot and boycott Hungarian representatives in the Council — just as the rest of the EU boycotted Austria in 2000, after the far-right Freedom Party of Austria joined its governing coalition.

When it puts its mind to it, the EU can play hardball. For the sake of self-preservation, it’s time that it does so now, and stop coddling a revisionist autocrat aligned with Moscow and Beijing.

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