Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has rarely been more isolated on the European stage — but he has seized on plans for a Russian oil ban to show he remains an EU power player.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the outspoken right-wing populist has taken a softer line on Russia than other Western leaders, backing sanctions on Moscow but refusing to send arms to Kyiv and allowing state-owned and government-friendly media outlets to promote Russia’s narrative on the war.
That stance has not only distanced Orbán from other Western capitals. It has also put him at odds with his only reliable longtime EU ally, Poland’s right-wing nationalist government, and drawn the ire of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
And it’s exacerbated his tense relationship with EU institutions, which have long accused Orbán of eroding Hungary’s democratic standards. Just last month, that relationship deteriorated further when Brussels triggered a process that could cut critical funds to Budapest over such rule-of-law deficits.
But the oil ban plans have given Orbán, one of the EU’s longest-serving national leaders and one of its wiliest operators, the opportunity to once again throw his weight around in Europe — and win concessions.
In the days since European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proposed that the EU end all Russian oil imports, Orbán has grabbed the political spotlight, holding up a final agreement by demanding extra phase-out time for his country before the ban kicks in.
Thanks to the EU rules that require unanimity on such important decisions, Orbán effectively has the bloc dancing to his tune. On Monday, von der Leyen flew to Hungary to discuss the oil ban with him. The following day, EU officials said they were deliberating a financial compensation package for the country.
While Hungary isn’t the only country asking for changes to the latest EU sanctions package, it has been by far the most vocal, with Orbán describing the oil ban as a “nuclear bomb” for his country’s economy.
The EU has already agreed to give Hungary two extra years, but Orbán claims it needs five years — and a significant amount of EU funding — to make the transition.
“Viktor is a player, he now got a powerful card,” said one former Hungarian official, describing Orbán’s approach to politics.
Domestic win, international headwinds
Orbán has been boosted by a major victory at home last month, cruising to a fourth consecutive term in office with a two-thirds majority in parliament, even if international observers said the campaign did not take place on a level playing field.
But he hasn’t had it all his own way lately.
Just days after Orbán’s own victory, one of his close allies, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, lost a parliamentary election, while French far-right leader Marine Le Pen — whom he openly supported — lost her bid for the presidency on the same day.
And all of this occurred as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised awkward questions for Budapest about its years-long policy of nurturing a friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Hungarian leader is in a more “complicated diplomatic environment than ever before,” said Péter Krekó, director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute think tank.
In Brussels, Orbán can’t necessarily rely on support from traditional regional allies in the Visegrád Group of Central European countries, where the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland have all taken a much harder line on Russia than Hungary.
“You see that there has been a huge rift inside the Visegrád Four over Russia,” said one EU diplomat.
The war has hit the once-strong ties between Hungary and Poland especially hard. A senior official from Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party conceded the relationship had “worsened very much.”
Hardball with Brussels
Still, Orbán has identified where he can still wield influence: Major EU decisions.
In an interview with state-owned Kossuth Rádió on Friday, he reminded everyone that Brussels must listen to Budapest if it wants to push forward its most contentious sanctions package to date.
“In this situation, Hungary’s opinion carries just as much weight as that of the larger countries,” Orbán said. “We need a unanimous decision.”
Hungary is heavily dependent on Russian oil, but officials say that there is room for a compromise. Brussels has already offered the country an extension. And, according to three EU officials, a financial package could be channeled to Budapest as part of the bloc’s new energy strategy, which is due to be set out next week, to help end the country’s reliance on Russian fossil fuels.
Orbán has also used the moment to make EU leaders engage directly with him — clout he has touted domestically.
After von der Leyen made her trip on Monday, Orbán’s team made sure the public knew about it via his Facebook page.
“Ursula von der Leyen in Budapest,” read the post, featuring a photo of the smiling prime minister welcoming the Commission president.
The next day, Orbán also got on the phone with French President Emmanuel Macron — one of the EU leaders with the most sway.
Signs of softening?
While Orbán has taken a tough line on the oil ban, there have been some signals lately that he may be seeking at least a symbolic thaw in his troubled relationship with Brussels, with the aim of unlocking some EU funds.
These signs have included the firing of an employee of the Hungarian prime minister’s office who is suspected of taking bribes. The European Commission has made clear that concerns over corruption were a major factor in its decision to launch the process that could lead to a cut in funding.
Orbán’s team is “looking for an exit,” said the senior Fidesz politician, adding that a shift can be expected now that the Hungarian election is over and “they need the money.”
The Hungarian government did not respond to a request for comment.
However, there are no signs that Orbán will make any fundamental shifts to address concerns about democratic norms, LGBTQ+ rights and other core issues.
That may leave the European Commission — particularly von der Leyen’s team on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont building — with a dilemma: Push ahead with possible cuts to EU funds or soft-pedal in the hope of avoiding clashes with Orbán on other fronts, particularly future rounds of sanctions on Moscow.
The question now, the former Hungarian official said, is “how tough the 13th floor is.”
Leonie Kijewski and Barbara Moens contributed reporting