Viktor Orbán’s double game: Spin EU conspiracies in Budapest, collaborate in Brussels

EuroActiv Politico News

Call it the two faces of Viktor Orbán.

In Budapest, the Hungarian leader and his government blame the EU for seemingly everything: EU sanctions are why your energy bill is high. The EU is why teachers make so little. The EU lied to Europe.

“The Brussels bureaucrats and the European elites decided on the sanctions, nobody asked the European people,” Orbán proclaimed, essentially echoing Russian talking points in a recent video featuring swelling, dramatic music and images of European politicians. 

In Brussels, the story is the opposite: Hungary wants to negotiate to avoid a slash in EU budget funding and unlock withheld European recovery funds. It professes a commitment to passing corruption-busting legislation. And just this week, Hungarian officials greenlit the same sanctions it claims are being shoved through and ruining economies. 

“Lots of anti-EU and anti-sanctions rhetoric back home, but in Coreper, his ambassador stayed quiet as a mouse in the sanctions discussions this week,” said one diplomat from a western European country, referring to the latest Coreper meetings, where envoys to the EU discussed measures against Russia.

It’s a dichotomy that will likely be publicly on display Friday as Orbán gathers with his EU counterparts in Prague for an informal leaders’ summit. 

Hours before the meeting, Orbán posted a video from the Czech capital, claiming Budapest had won concessions in the latest sanctions package and calling again for the EU to change course. But in recent weeks, Hungarian officials have shied away from Orbán’s hyperbolic rhetoric when actually talking to their European counterparts, opting instead for more even-keeled talk.

The bifurcated approach is more than an odd EU sideshow. Some in Brussels are worried that Orbán is essentially playing the EU while courting Moscow — and that the bloc is letting it happen for the sake of keeping Budapest on board amid a destabilizing war and blossoming energy crisis. 

“There is the hope, I think, in the [European] Commission, the member states, that he’s not vetoing sanctions and that he will lift his veto on the minimum tax,” said German MEP Moritz Körner, a member of the pro-business Free Democratic Party, referencing Hungary’s lingering roadblocks over setting a basic global corporate tax. 

It’s a “trap,” the German politician warned.

“After he has the money,” he predicted, Orbán “will find new vetoes.” 

Hungary’s Brussels tale

Back in Hungary, government officials are painting a conspiratorial narrative about the EU across all platforms — public speeches, local media outlets, Facebook.

The story they’re building goes like this: Shadowy forces in Brussels are forcing sanctions on Europe, causing economic woes in Hungary. 

“Let’s say honestly, that the introduction of the sanctions didn’t happen in a democratic way,” Orbán said in a video posted on Facebook and Instagram in late September. 

Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party won April’s parliamentary election following a campaign that emphasized stability, and the prime minister has been quick to blame the EU for deteriorating economic conditions in the months since.

“If there were no sanctions,” Orbán added in a radio interview last Friday, “the price of energy would be somewhere around the level it was at, say, during the April election and during our election campaign.” 

Over the coming weeks, every Hungarian adult is set to receive a questionnaire in the mail from the government on EU sanctions — following similar questionnaires on issues such as migration and LGBTQ+ rights. 

“The truth is that the people of Europe were lied to in Brussels,” Orbán said in his interview, where he focused on sanctions fallout but did not mention Russia. “They said that the sanctions wouldn’t be extended to energy — and then they were extended. They also said that the sanctions would end the war — the war is dragging on.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speaks with European Council President Charles Michel during the inaugural meeting of the European Political Community in Prague | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In reality, the EU made neither promise. Orbán regularly omits some other key facts: EU sanctions decisions require unanimity (meaning Hungary, too), and his government signed off on every package thus far.

Speaking to his home audience, Orbán has even been advocating for lifting sanctions. 

“When the sanctions have to be renewed,” the prime minister said, “there’s also the opportunity for the politicians in Brussels to see the error of their ways.” 

But in Brussels, Hungary is singing a different tune. 

The European Commission last month recommended slashing €7.5 billion of Hungary’s EU funds. But it simultaneously paved the way for the country to keep its money if it implemented a set of 17 reforms.  

Hungary has eagerly taken the opening. The country’s parliament is currently moving through legislation to meet these demands ahead of a looming decision later this year from the bloc’s other 26 governments, who will determine whether to cut the funds or if the reforms are sufficient. 

As Budapest awaits the verdict, Hungarian officials have been working to convince counterparts that they are reliable partners. 

Judit Varga, the country’s justice minister, has referred to the EU negotiations as a “constructive dialogue” and thanked fellow ministers for “appreciating” Hungary’s commitments. 

It’s the economy… 

One major reason for Hungary to play nice in Brussels is the country’s turbulent economy. 

Hungary’s currency, the forint, has reached record lows, and rising prices are impacting households. 

On Monday, Hungary said it reached an agreement with Russia’s Gazprom to defer winter gas payments. Also this week, thousands took to the streets of Budapest to protest in solidarity with teachers demanding better pay.  

Some of Orbán’s own supporters acknowledge the country’s tough economic environment is playing a role in the anti-sanctions positioning. 

“I think it’s only rhetoric,” said one senior Hungarian official when asked if the prime minister is serious about pushing to lift sanctions. 

The upcoming sanctions questionnaire, according to the official, is merely an effort “to give a solid foundation for the government’s reasoning of the economic situation.”

Experts, however, say the strategy goes beyond an economic blame game. 

The ruling Fidesz party learned from its parliamentary re-election campaign earlier this year that Russian-style, maximalist messaging can work politically.

In the spring, Orbán ran the most “anti-Ukrainian, pro-Russian campaign as you can imagine within the European Union and NATO,” said Péter Krekó, director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute think tank, noting that the prime minister won a “landslide” victory because “he could exploit really well these fears over war.”

There is also an element of signaling to Brussels from across the Continent. 

Specifically, Krekó said, the sanctions questionnaire being sent to households is meant as a reminder to Brussels that the Hungarian government can shift public opinion. The goal, he argued, is to convince EU officials that “it’s better to pay us off with the funds.” 

It’s a high-wire act. 

“I think Orbán still has this illusion —  as many politicians in Hungary do — that he can do this double game,” Krekó said. 

Hungary’s opposition has cautioned EU governments not to take Budapest’s reform pledges seriously, arguing that funds should be cut. 

“If the Hungarian government receives a single euro unchecked, the same policy that we have seen so far will continue,” said Hungarian MEP Attila Ara-Kovács, a member of the opposition Democratic Coalition party. 

“It is no longer just about the dismantling of the democratic system in Hungary,” he said, “but about the security and future of Europe as a whole.” 

But while many European capitals are willing to give Budapest the opportunity to keep its EU funds if it proves serious about reforms, officials are keeping an eye on Hungary’s pro-Russian rhetoric.

The EU’s strength, said Finnish European Affairs Minister Tytti Tuppurainen, “lies in its unity.”

“In the face of the Russian aggression we must all commit to our united response,” the minister said in a text message, adding: “Sanctions are decided unanimously, which means that each and every member state has her say. Hungary has made her mark in the process.”

And as Russia continues to suffer losses on the battlefield, there are also growing questions about Orbán’s political calculus. 

“I think there is a charm offensive there, but it’s just because they want to get the money,” said German MEP Körner. 

“At some point,” Körner said, “we have to deal with the fact that we’re facing an autocrat.”