EU blasts Hungary over Orban's rogue Ukraine diplomacy

Hungary's EU partners expressed anger at Prime Minister Viktor Orban's so-called 'peace mission' (Alexander NEMENOV)
Hungary's EU partners expressed anger at Prime Minister Viktor Orban's so-called 'peace mission' (Alexander NEMENOV)

Hungary was hit by a blast of opprobrium by almost all other EU countries on Wednesday over a go-it-alone diplomatic initiative on Ukraine being staged by Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Ambassador after ambassador lambasted Budapest in a two-hour closed-door meeting in Brussels, each ramming home that Orban's initiative was incompatible with Hungary currently holding the rotating EU presidency, according to multiple diplomats.

Twenty-five of the bloc's 27 countries "expressed wide dissatisfaction or anger at how the Hungarian presidency is unrolling," after Orban made impromptu visits in recent days to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin and then Chinese President Xi Jinping, said one EU diplomat.

Hungary's protestations that it was merely conducting a bilateral exercise to feel out possible conditions for a Ukraine-Russia ceasefire "were not credible, given the timing and sequencing of the meetings", another diplomat told AFP.

Orban kicked off his initiative on July 1 -- the day his country took over the six-month EU presidency -- with a visit to Kyiv to see President Volodymyr Zelensky. He followed up with a surprise trip to Moscow last Friday, then to Beijing on Monday this week.

Although Orban acknowledged he had no EU mandate for his initiative, he conducted his self-described "peace mission" using Hungary's EU presidency logo and hashtags, and Putin greeted him as a politician supposedly representing the bloc.

Hungary's Foreign Minister Janos Boka told journalists in Brussels Orban's position was that, if there is "any part he can play in the facilitation of the resolution (of the conflict) this will entail open channels of diplomatic communication with Russia".

Orban, long a thorn in the EU's side for his government's backsliding on the bloc's democratic principles and rule of law, remains defiantly friendly with the Kremlin more than two years after Putin ordered his all-out invasion of Ukraine.

It took just over a week of taking on the EU presidency for Hungary "to lose any smidgen of trust they had left", one of the diplomats said.

"Orban does not represent the EU or the member states. His actions are not serving the EU or a peace. They play in the hands of Putin and his war project," he said.

"This was a clear yellow card to Hungary," he added.

Another diplomat confirmed the fierce blowback Hungary received from all its EU partners -- except Slovakia, whose ambassador did not speak -- but said there was so far no move to punish Budapest.

"No concrete measure was put on the table, and that includes by Poland, which put this on the agenda," the diplomat said.

Yet "it is also clear that if these actions continue, are repeated, this will be raised again".

- Modelled on Trump -

Orban, a populist leader who models himself on Donald Trump, to the point of making the slogan of Hungary's EU presidency "Make Europe Great Again", has long taken a sceptical position on the bloc's financial, political and military support for Ukraine.

He has repeatedly blocked or hindered EU consensus on measures to help Kyiv, while keeping warm channels open with Putin.

After meeting the Russian president, Orban sent a letter to European Council President Charles Michel saying Putin was open "to any ceasefire proposal that does not serve the hidden relocation and reorganisation of Ukrainian forces".

Orban said Putin also had "detailed plans" on what the "new European architecture" should look like after an end to the war, but his letter gave no details. Orban said he intended to pursue his solitary mission "next week".

While EU countries appear resigned to continuing with Hungary chairing the bloc's ministerial meetings -- the main role of the EU presidency -- until the end of the year, there were some signs they could offer snubs by sending more junior officials than would be expected, as most did in one meeting this week.

Some diplomats described the lower-grade participation as "boycotts".

In parallel with the presidency, Orban has launched a far-right faction in the European Parliament to promote his anti-immigrant, eurosceptic views -- the Patriots for Europe, joined by France's far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen on Monday.

The parliament is delaying the traditional speech by the EU presidency leader, pushing back Orban's moment to sometime in September -- ostensibly to focus on nominees for the European Commission following elections last month, parliament officials said.