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The EU needs a better response to Viktor Orban

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s agreement to lift his hold on €50 billion of financial support for Ukraine marks an important victory for both Kyiv and the European Union. The long-term funding is essential to keeping Ukraine’s government and public services running. The EU’s success in standing up to Orban will bolster the bloc’s credibility and capacity to function. Even so, Europe’s leaders need to examine the reasons for the impasse and how to prevent it from happening again.

That it took months of wrangling and an emergency summit illustrates the limits of the EU’s approach to decision-making. Because of the EU’s insistence on unanimity in certain areas, any single member can veto action by the entire group. Orban objected to Kyiv’s record on fighting corruption and argues negotiations with Russia would deliver a faster end to the war. That’s largely a smoke screen: Hungary ranks as the most corrupt EU member state, and Orban’s long-standing coziness with Russian President Vladimir Putin belies any claims that he’s an honest broker.

Since 2022, the European Commission has withheld more than €30 billion in funds for Hungary, in response to its failure to uphold the rule of law and the rights of minorities. More than a third of that money was released late last year as a reward for Hungary’s adopting a few judicial reforms — and at least in part to persuade Orban to support more war aid and the opening of talks over future EU membership for Ukraine. When Orban continued to balk at approving the package for Kyiv, EU leaders warned (via a leaked internal document) that more subsidies could be at risk.

By some measures, this mix of carrots and sticks worked: Brussels forced Orban to capitulate. That’s good news for Ukraine — but there’s no guarantee that Orban’s compliance on Ukraine or other EU policy priorities will last. Indeed, Orban’s legislators have slow-walked Sweden’s NATO ratification and adopted a “sovereignty protection” law that is straight out of Putin’s playbook for cracking down on opposition. That has set up another legal contest with Brussels.

The EU needs a way to accelerate essential cooperative action in foreign and security policy beyond punishing dissenters or rewarding fig-leaf concessions to EU demands. One option, if Orban’s defiance persists, would be to remove Hungary’s EU voting rights by invoking Article 7, the so-called nuclear option. Going that route is opposed by some member states (Slovakia would almost certainly veto it). It would also aggravate euroskeptic sentiment throughout the union and irrevocably alter the EU’s constitutional settlement.

A more practical solution would be to make more use of mechanisms in EU law that allow for qualified majority voting. Willing majorities of like-minded EU governments could also act in concert without forcing dissenters to go along. The existing all-or-nothing system will prove increasingly unworkable in a 27-member bloc that still has ambitions to grow. In preparing alternatives to delivering the Ukraine aid package, the EU explored pragmatic, willing-majority workarounds. It should embrace this approach more wholeheartedly.

Noisy debate is healthy in a bloc of democracies. The EU needs to hear the concerns of the voters that Orban and other far-right leaders attract. But the willful intransigence of Orban and his ilk can’t be allowed to shut cooperation down. With many nationalist-populist parties on track to win in June’s European Parliament elections, there’s more friction to come. Europe needs to start preparing now.

The Editorial Board publishes the views of the editors across a range of national and global affairs.

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