Orban Raises Ante Over EU Virus Aid With Rule-of-Law ‘Blackmail’

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Prime Minister Viktor Orban is trying to ratchet up pressure on the European Union to end a rule-of-law probe into Hungary in a showdown with Brussels over the bloc’s coronavirus stimulus fund.

Orban’s ruling Fidesz party, which dominates Hungary’s parliament, approved a declaration Tuesday that calls on the premier to reject the EU’s coronavirus recovery plan and its seven-year budget until it withdraws the investigation into his government.

Described by one opposition lawmaker as “blackmail,” the resolution denounces the linking of aid to a country’s adherence to democratic standards as “unacceptable.”

It raises the stakes ahead of an EU summit in Brussels on Friday. Leaders there will discuss the 750 billion-euro ($853 billion) recovery plan backed by Germany and France, which is primarily intended to help nations hit hardest by Covid-19, such as Italy and Spain.

The proposal is opposed by a handful of countries, and it can’t pass without the unanimous consent of all 27 EU members. While the Hungarian declaration is non-binding, its message is that Orban can’t budge, though he’ll likely have to along with other states that are currently in opposition to the fund, according to Peter Kreko, the director of the Political Capital think-tank in Budapest.

“Whatever Orban will achieve, he’ll likely sell it as a huge victory at home,” Kreko said. “But he won’t single handedly veto an EU budget, as that would carry a huge toll for him diplomatically.”

By driving a hard bargain, Orban may also try avert a reduction in funds earmarked for Hungary. The ex-communist nation of almost 10 million people is one of the largest net recipient of EU development aid, which is a crucial source of income both for the government and some of Orban’s closest allies.

Orban is trying to take advantage of growing urgency for the EU package’s quick approval to end the bloc’s criticism of a decade-old rollback of democracy that included overhauling the courts and the creation of the biggest state-backed media propaganda machine in Europe.

That pressure is building as leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds the bloc’s rotating presidency, are urging a tougher line against rogue members.

Involving parliament may backfire though, as Hungary’s EU partners know that it’s Orban who calls the shots at home, said Daniel Hegedus, a Budapest-based fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

“It’s a risky game, as Hungary stands to receive a ton of money from the recovery fund,” Hegedus said. “And anyone who knows anything about the country knows that involving parliament is just a charade.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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