Orban’s Ukraine gamble is a blow to the EU’s geopolitical ambitions

The EU must tackle the challenge of rogue member states to fulfil its potential as a geostrategic actor.

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The high-stakes EU summit in December 2023 resulted in accession negotiations for Ukraine and Moldova and candidate status for Georgia – thanks to a well-timed coffee break. As Hungary’s Viktor Orban sought to derail the decision on Ukraine, he was invited by the leaders of the other 26 member states to take a coffee break. As Orban left the room, they got a consensus to open negotiations and he got the €10 billion that had been frozen over Hungary’s rule-of-law violations. He did however succeed in blocking €50 billion of aid to Ukraine – a lifeline for Ukraine’s war-torn economy.

The EU can no longer ignore the problem of rogue member states and must deal with this challenge as a matter of both urgency and principle – coffee breaks will not suffice.

There are three main takeaways from the summit. First, while enlargement is a geostrategic instrument, EU institutions and member states have yet to develop the necessary techniques to deploy it without jeopardizing normative coherence. Second, European unity remains brittle, vulnerable to both internal and external challenges. Third, the EU can no longer ignore the problem of rogue member states and must deal with this challenge as a matter of both urgency and principle – coffee breaks will not suffice.

While an important breakthrough symbolically, the painful European Council decision-making process came across as dwindling Western support for Ukraine, something which also seemed to be reflected in the US. While Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, lobbied US Congress for more funds, Orban met with increasingly sceptical Republicans looking to block aid to Ukraine (albeit to undermine Biden’s hopes for re-election).

It is clear that Orban’s true motives have little to do with frozen funds or concerns for the Hungarian minority in Ukraine, whose interests would certainly be better served with Ukraine inside the EU. He has also been blocking Sweden’s accession to NATO and threatened to ‘correct’ the EU’s decision on Ukraine’s accession. Aptly described as Putin’s Trojan Horse , Orban’s pursuit of ideological allies across the West suggests an intent to achieve the defeat of Ukraine and deliver a strategic blow to the liberal West, thereby undermining European security.

By instrumentalizing EU’s unanimity rule, Putin plans to derail enlargement through proxies, like Orban, and re-establish Moscow’s uncontested dominance over Europe’s eastern neighbourhood.

European enlargement, a Ukrainian victory and European security have become inextricably intertwined. It was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that returned enlargement to the top of the European agenda. Ukraine’s membership of the EU, as well as that of Georgia and Moldova, would be a major blow to Moscow’s strategic ambitions to breed discord among EU member states, and Putin seeks to prevent this by promoting right-wing populism and engineering Ukraine fatigue. By instrumentalizing EU’s unanimity rule, he plans to derail enlargement through proxies, like Orban, and re-establish Moscow’s uncontested dominance over Europe’s eastern neighbourhood.

EU member states perceive the Russian threat with different degrees of acuteness. Yet European security is increasingly precarious as the war support for Ukraine has revealed weaknesses in European defence – the result of years of neglect and underspending. Meanwhile, there has been a near total erosion of arms control instruments and the looming uncertainty over the US elections may also lead to the erosion of the US security umbrella. In this light, the fate of Ukraine has become directly intertwined with Europe’s security.

Without decisive military and financial support, the promise of accession may turn out to be hollow and the geopolitical impact of enlargement limited. The EU needs to act on the understanding that Europe’s future hinges on the success of Ukraine and that Ukrainian security is central not peripheral to European security. This includes developing EU-wide policies to boost and scale up military production, streamlining joint procurement mechanisms through the European Peace Facility and fast-tracking decision-making to support Ukraine on the battlefield and beyond. Conversely, upholding a common geostrategic vision risks being derailed by issues such as lack of internal institutional reform, common agricultural policy or distribution of regional funds.

The experience of Western Balkans is indicative of challenges to come. The current enlargement methodology – requiring approval of all 27 member states of the opening and closure of 33 chapters – is a recipe for paralysis. It offers regular opportunities for EU member states to abuse the process for their own bilateral score settling or horse-trading, allowing geostrategic objectives of enlargement to fall victim to national vetoes. 

The current enlargement methodology is a recipe for paralysis.

The simple solution is to switch decision-making on clusters and chapters from unanimity to qualified majority voting (QMV) in the European Council. There is an overarching consensus among experts that the unanimity requirement for these second-level technical decisions can and should be dropped. The council can make this administrative correction on QMV without treaty change or legislation, while member states can support the geostrategic imperative by dropping their control over technical aspects. This would be a momentous decision, but it would deprive individual rogue actors of the means to block and derail decision-making, and blackmail the EU.

This is necessary but not sufficient, however. Because Hungary has other means with which to paralyse the EU, the EU needs to tackle the issue of rogue member states head on. Crucially, it has the tools to do so but has so far refrained from using them.

As a result, Orban’s Hungary now presents a triple threat to the EU. First, it is jeopardizing the rule-of-law principle inside the EU; second, it is paralysing decisions on enlargement; and third, it is undermining the credibility of EU’s tough conditions on democracy and the rule of law for aspiring countries.

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The challenge of rogue member states has been sidetracked as one of many internal EU matters ‘too difficult to deal with’ for too long. As a result, the EU is now finds itself in a situation where its ability to act as a geostrategic actor is jeopardized. Restoring the coherence of the EU and its capacity to act necessitates curtailing rouge countries’ capacity to spoil.

Given Hungary’s track record, the increasingly vocal calls for suspending its EU membership rights (e.g. voting rights in the European Council) because of its serious and persistent breaches of the EU’s founding principles are fully justified. Enacting article 7.1 of the Treaty on European Union to suspend Hungary’s membership is justified because Orban’s capture of Hungary is so deep that internal democratic resilience and procedures cannot be relied on to turn the tide, in the way that is happening in Poland under the new government.

Enlargement is a key foreign policy instrument for the EU: the demand from states to be let in is unprecedented. In turn, no other body can demand such profound political and economic changes in exchange for membership. The ability to lever this instrument effectively is transformative. In the geopolitical context, maintaining momentum, underpinned by a geostrategic vision and outcome, will be necessary for success.

Faced with the threat of Russia and heightened great power rivalry, the success or failure of EU’s geostrategic enlargement will define its geopolitical relevance.