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Veto Plans: What to Expect from Orban on Ukraine in 2024

Orban could still present an obstacle along Ukraine's path to the EU, but this is probably not going to happen any time soon. Photo from the EU  summit, 14 December 2023

Anyone who is keeping an eye on Ukraine's path to the EU is aware of the crucial diplomatic achievement in December. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, under unprecedented pressure from his counterparts at the EU summit in Brussels, reluctantly accepted that accession negotiations be opened with Ukraine.

But what comes next?

Although Orban did not exercise the veto this time, he hinted that he plans to block Ukraine's progress towards EU membership; he will have over 70 opportunities to do so. The first chance for Orban's veto will come in just three months’ time.

Will Hungary stop Ukraine's EU accession right from the start?

Let's start with the good news.

European Pravda's analysis suggests that the next steps are unlikely to be blocked. The Hungarian leader is preparing his voters for the opening of negotiations with Ukraine, acknowledging that it is part of his undisclosed agreement with the German Chancellor. Based on his statements, however, Hungary still plans to use the veto later to influence the negotiations on the terms of Ukraine's EU membership.

It would be a mistake to assume that the Hungarian issue is resolved for 2024.

Unfortunately, the actions of Orban's team indicate that he is gearing up for a new round of confrontations with Ukraine. Budapest is reviving and intensifying the campaign to demonise Ukraine in order to achieve that.

One of its tools is a propagandistic "referendum" in Hungary. The process is conducted online, so as to gather the maximum number of votes against Ukraine. EuroPravda's reporter took the opportunity and, without being a Hungarian citizen, also participated in Orban's "referendum," voting twice (the reporter could even have voted 10 times). But these irregularities will not prevent its "results" from becoming an informational weapon in 2024.

Slap for Orban

The EU summit in Brussels brought an unconditional and truly significant diplomatic victory for Ukraine – the green light to open EU accession negotiations. That prospect became real at a time when even many European leaders had lost the hope of success. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had burned bridges and publicly committed himself to vetoing the Ukrainian decision no matter what the circumstances.

Orban had to make a concession on an issue he himself had declared crucial. The Hungarian leader received a resounding public slap and, moreover, demonstrated that the EU can sometimes bypass the Hungarian veto, the most effective leverage Budapest has preserved in its relations with Brussels.

Orban's initial attempts to explain his actions were so unconvincing and even laughable that even government-controlled Hungarian media, such as the newspaper Magyar Nemzet, acknowledged what really happened, as opposed to the prime minister's statements. Orban broke his own promise and knowingly allowed negotiations to be opened for Ukraine's EU accession.

The reasons for this in Hungary were not understood.

That's why Viktor Orbán had to launch urgent crisis communication. Although Orban controls most of Hungary's media, he rarely gives them interviews. The only exception is a Friday morning programme on the "public" (effectively government) broadcaster, Kossuth Rádió, on which he sometimes gives what amounts to a monologue intended to outline and explain the government's general line. It is safer than interviews, because even loyal media sometimes ask pointed questions.

His Brussels failure, however, was too deep and required a different reaction. In the week before Christmas, Orban filled the Hungarian media space with himself, explaining, convincing, reassuring voters that everything is under control. Contrary to his usual practice, Orban gave live interviews to TV2 and Hír TV channels and to the Magyar Nemzet and Mandiner newspaper s, and participated in a podcast at Mandiner.

This stream of responses from Orban to questions put to him lifted the veil of secrecy as to who forced the Hungarian leader to abandon his position. Orban acknowledged that the key role was played by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. "In the end, a Hungarian-German agreement was reached and for this reason Hungary did not participate in the decision," explained Orban in an interview with Mandiner.

Other details of the agreement remain unknown.

Ukraine as the cause of Hungarian problems

But Orban wouldn't be Orban if he didn't turn his defeat to his advantage. His new course is strategically harmful to Ukraine.

Orban has once again decided to make Ukraine a public enemy of the Hungarian nation, blaming it for the economic problems of his government.

Orbán initiated the so-called national consultation in November. This is an annual manipulative nationwide survey accompanied by a massive government information campaign telling Hungarians that only Orban and his government care about their well-being, and it is always someone else who hinders Orban from doing his job well.

The "anti-hero" in question constantly changes. Soros, Brussels, Ursula von der Leyen, a global anti-Hungarian conspiracy, Syrian migrants, Ukrainians with their war, and so on have played this role at various times.

In early November, they planned to make Ukraine the scapegoat of the year in Budapest. But they changed the focus very unexpectedly, moving the questions about "bad Ukraine" to the end of the survey, placing the emphasis on criticism of Brussels and the European Commission.

When Orban was forced to abandon the veto, he urgently reviewed his information strategy.

A new wave of anti-Ukrainian agitation has begun in Hungary.

As early as Monday, 18 December, the first working day after Viktor Orban's return from Brussels, Hungarians began to receive mass letters from the government urging them to participate in the "national consultations".

Although only 4 out of the 11 questions were devoted to Ukraine, the Hungarian government began to pretend that it was conducting a "referendum" solely on Ukraine and its EU membership.

Even the invitation letter did not hide the fact that the government’s aim is not to find out people's opinions but to gather votes in favour of the position it has already formed, namely against Ukraine's accession to the EU and generally against supporting Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Orban's "consultation" system, created specifically for such manipulative surveys, has a serious flaw that has been growing every year. Orban's government tried to fix it in the "vote on Ukraine."

How votes against Ukraine are collected

Orban's "national consultations" are a mechanism for nationwide "voting". The questions are formulated in a way that is manipulative, presupposing a predetermined result favoured by the government, ballots are not recorded, and votes are collected by mail. Orban's position receives unanimous support each time.

Even though every adult Hungarian receives the questionnaires, the vast majority of them do not participate, throwing the "ballot" in the trash. For example, last year only 17% of voters filled out the ballots.

This undermines Orban's already weak narrative that his "consultations" are equivalent to a referendum and represent the people's opinion. The European Commission laughed almost openly at the voting results.

To fix this issue this year, Orban decided to launch... an online voting option, sending an "electronic ballot" to everyone registered in government databases.

Even foreigners were invited to vote against Ukraine.

For example, invitations were sent to Ukrainians who were vaccinated against COVID-19 in Hungary and left their personal data with the government. European Pravda received confirmation of this from several acquaintances.

Even without an invitation, anyone can visit the government's website Nemzetikonzultacio and "help" Orban gather votes. The Hungarian government is ready for and even encourages multiple voting!

No restrictions were encountered, either on vote manipulation or on voting by foreigners. All one needs to do is check the box next to "I am a citizen of Hungary." The system does not verify this claim.

The EuroPravda editor also participated in the "referendum", as an experiment. The system easily accepted the Ukrainian phone number and provided access to the voting questionnaire. The editor tried to disrupt the government's statistics and voted in support of Ukraine. When the questionnaire was submitted, he received an invitation to revisit the "survey" page to participate again, using the same phone number.

One can only speculate about the extent of manipulation in this survey and how many votes will be "added". Orban will in any case speak of hundreds of thousands and millions of Hungarian votes against EU expansion and against supporting Ukraine.

It is also important for Ukraine that millions of Hungarians will receive messages from their government explaining why Hungary is facing financial problems. EU funds, allegedly, are not reaching Hungary because they being sent to Ukraine instead (which is false. Hungarian funds have been frozen since 2021 because Orban is not complying with various EU rules). [The government also claims that – ed.] Ukraine's accession to the EU will cause additional problems for Hungary because of the vast sums of money that will now go to Ukrainians (which is false. The financial support system will change upon Ukraine's accession, the details of which are yet to be determined). Brussels demands that GMO imports from Ukraine be allowed into Hungary, killing Hungarian farming sector (groundless, but it sounds threatening to an average Hungarian).

And supposedly, all these troubles for Hungarians are because of Ukraine, since Brussels does not want peace but war, so it can supply weapons to Ukraine. In short, all of Hungary's woes are blamed on Ukraine.

When to expect a veto

Orban is not inclined to normalise relations with Ukraine, but is interested in keeping them tense. The demonisation of Ukraine's image in the part of the Hungarian electorate that believes in government propaganda further cements issues in the relations between the two countries. There are grounds, however, for claiming that Orban is not preparing for an uncompromising confrontation with Ukraine.

Orban does not plan a total blockade of Ukraine's progress toward EU accession.

While reminders by the Hungarian government and the prime minister himself that there are more than 70 opportunities to exercise a veto are heard, there is currently no talk of an unconditional blockade.

Although the December summit in Brussels adopted a political decision to start negotiations, several unanimous decisions by the EU member states are needed for these negotiations to start in practice. The European Council must approve the "negotiation framework" developed by the European Commission. This decision requires unanimity. The intergovernmental conference (involving Ukraine and all EU countries) must then be convened to kickstart the negotiations. A unanimous decision of the EU to open several negotiation chapters and headings is required either during or immediately after this conference. Only after that stage will the negotiation process become predominantly technical for some time.

The good news is that Viktor Orban has emphasised in several interviews in recent weeks that his agreement with EU leaders in Brussels, especially with Olaf Scholz, includes Hungary's agreement to refrain from vetoing all stages of the political launch of negotiations.

Orban will reserve his veto for a later stage.

"We know that the decision (to start negotiations) can lead to many problems, but we have legitimate grounds to prevent these problems as soon as they concern Hungary," explained the Hungarian Prime Minister regarding his new negotiation tactics with Ukraine in an interview with Hungary's main government publication, Magyar Nemzet. "The decisive argument was that Hungary is not losing anything (by opening negotiations)," he added in a conversation with Mandiner.

Orban's statements, of course, do not provide solid guarantees. It is also a matter of his personal relationships with key EU leaders and adherence to the promises and commitments made to them. That is why negotiations between Ukraine and the EU are likely to start. Then the period of potential vetoes will commence. Orban has already marked possible grounds for them. For example, conditions for Ukraine's membership that could threaten Hungarian businesses or the Hungarian budget as a whole.

There will also be other, much more contentious demands that, if not met, will prevent Orban's government from agreeing to close negotiation chapters. Thus, Hungary will be a challenging sparring partner, at least as long as Orban remains in office. The year 2024 is likely to pass without the level of problems with Hungary that would jeopardise Ukraine's European integration as a whole.

Of course, this is contingent on nothing extraordinary happening and on Ukraine implementing the updated legislation on minorities passed by Ukraine's parliament in December, stripping Orban of most of his levers for claims against Kyiv internationally.


By Sergiy Sydorenko. Source European Pravda. The article was prepared for publication by volunteers from the Res Publica - The Center for Civil Resistance.


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