Hungary, Poland under pressure over anti-Brussels strategy

Compromise looked likely Thursday over an EU budget row, but Hungary and Poland’s threat of a veto may yet have domestic repercussions for Budapest and Warsaw, whose tough-talking stand against Brussels must  contend with pro-EU public opinion and the Covid-19 pandemic.

The two countries have both fought hard to block plans to link payouts from the EU budget and the bloc’s coronavirus recovery fund to conditions on the rule of law.

On Wednesday Polish President Andrzej Duda said Hungary and Poland had accepted a provisional deal, and ministers in the nationalist Hungarian government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban proclaimed “victory” in the row.

The deal must however still win EU leaders’ sign-off at their meeting in Brussels on Thursday.

According to details which have emerged from negotiations, any financial penalties will only be levied after a decision by the European Court of Justice.

Some in the Hungarian opposition are incensed, fearing Orban has won several concessions — among them preventing any sanctions coming into force before the next scheduled parliamentary elections in 2022.

Independent MP Akos Hadhazy called the deal “a bow and even a surrender to the Hungarian Prime Minister”, who has himself been accused of profiting from misdirected EU funds.

“He is free to steal EU money for at least another two years,” Hadhazy said.

– ‘Unaffordable’ veto –

Although the two governments had signed an agreement not to accept any deal unless the other was also on board, Hungary looked nervous in recent days over signs Poland’s resolve could crumble.

Former foreign minister and Orban critic Peter Balazs said Orban’s two recent trips to Warsaw were made “to try to convince the Polish side to maintain the veto” on the budget.

Once other EU members threatened the two holdouts with being bypassed and losing out on funds, Poland looked increasingly ready to fold.

“They can’t afford (a veto),” according to Anna Materska-Sosnowska, political scientist at Warsaw University.

“As much as they say they have enough funds” to do without EU money, “this isn’t true”, she goes on.

According to Balazs, the suggested deal is an “escape route” for both governments “so they can sell the compromise as a victory at home”.

Details of the deal may frustrate some Orban opponents, but others see positive sides to the fallout from the row.

“Viktor Orban is now lagging behind not just the European Union, but also Hungarian voters who want EU money spent on hospitals, schools and jobs, not the prime minister’s family,” said MEP Anna Donath, who is from the small liberal Momentum party.

Although their leaders talk tough on standing up to Brussels, recent surveys show public opinion in both countries actually supports the notion of tying funds to rule of law conditions (66 percent in favour in Poland, 77 percent in Hungary).

EU membership is also overwhelmingly popular with both Hungarians (85 percent in favour) and Poles (87 percent in favour) — “an unprecedented level” according to the Budapest-based Median Institute.

– ‘Conflict of interest’ –

In 2018 a report from the EU’s anti-fraud office said it had found “serious irregularities” and a “conflict of interest” in Hungarian public lighting projects, part-funded by the EU, involving a firm once controlled by Orban’s son-in-law. 

Meanwhile both Hungary and Poland have both decided not to participate in the EU’s new Public Prosecutor’s Office, designed to help counter fraud and corruption and which is due to start work in March 2021.

But there are signs the usual strategies for managing public opinion are becoming less effective.

In Poland, the PiS-led coalition government has been battered by internal arguments and has seen its approval ratings slip below 30 percent.

It has been criticised for its handling of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic and also over recent moves to tighten abortion law — already among the most restrictive in Europe — which have brought thousands on to the streets across the country.

Throughout his term in office since 2010, Orban “could point to imaginary enemies — George Soros, Brussels or migrants — but now he has to face a formidable enemy which won’t bend to his wishes: the pandemic,” columnist Miklos Hargitai said.

Covid-19 has made for “the most difficult period of his career”, he added.

New among Orban’s woes is the embarrassment of prominent Orban loyalist MEP — and architect of anti-LGBT measures — Joszef Szajer resigning, after Belgian police caught him fleeing an illegal all-male sex party that breached virus lockdown rules.

Faced with these multiple challenges, the Orban government’s “propaganda machine is starting to rust,” says analyst Peter Kreko from the Political Capital think tank.

by Geza MOLNAR / with Stanislaw WASZAK in Warsaw