Thursday, June 20, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Sweden in Nato, Hungary in isolation

  • Hungary's parliament has finally voted to ratify Sweden's bid to join Nato after more than 18 months of stalling
  • The delay highlights how much Viktor Orban has politically isolated his country
Update : 29 Feb 2024, 09:00 AM

The tug-of-war over Sweden's application to join Nato is over at last after 18 months. Hungary was the last Nato country to officially give its approval, which it finally did on Monday afternoon when an overwhelming majority of lawmakers in the country's parliament voted in favor of Sweden joining the North Atlantic defense alliance.

In a striking change of tune from recent months, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban spoke of the Scandinavian country in glowing terms, calling Sweden an important partner and saying its accession to Nato would "strengthen Hungary's security."

What Orban was trying to gloss over with his cordial, diplomatic phrases was the most embarrassing foreign policy episode of his 14-year rule so far: Hungary held out against Sweden's Nato membership for a year and a half, even though it is not really clear what Orban hoped to achieve in doing so.

There are many indications that he quite simply misjudged the situation and dug in his heels. After Finland and Sweden applied to join Nato in the spring of 2022, Orban sided with Turkey in opposing their bid.

It is likely that a major reason for this was the close ties between him and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. If and what Hungary got in return is not apparent to this day.

Orban's vague demands

Just like Erdogan, Orban attached conditions to his backing for Sweden and Finland. Unlike Erdogan, however, Orban's conditions were completely vague.

He and members of his Fidesz party repeatedly reproached Finland and Sweden for behaving disrespectfully toward Hungary and unfairly accusing the country of having a democratic deficit or being systematically corrupt.

Budapest repeatedly stressed that mutual relations would have to be improved before Hungary would approve the two countries' membership. What exactly that entailed was never spelled out.

It was equally unclear why the parliament in Budapest ratified Finland's Nato bid in March 2023, but not Sweden's. Publicly, at least, Finland had made none of the apologies Hungary had demanded or kowtowed to Orban in any way. The same can be said of Sweden.

A major arms deal or just a routine agreement?

Perhaps Orban was taken off guard by Erdogan's decision late last year to put Sweden’s application to the Turkish parliament for ratification, which it did last month. This would explain why Orban pulled an arms deal with Sweden out of the hat in recent days as a way of saving face.

Hungary will buy four Gripen fighter jets from Sweden as part of the deal. While Orban lauded the deal as the successful outcome of negotiations and very advantageous for Hungary, it is, in reality, merely the continuation of a long-standing cooperation in this field: Hungary has been using Gripen jets for almost 20 years and cooperates closely with Sweden in this area.

Orban also recently tried to shift the blame for his unsuccessful foreign policy onto others. Speaking in his weekly radio interview last Friday, he said that he had finally succeeded in removing his party's opposition to Sweden's membership of Nato.

This is quite remarkable considering that the autocratic Orban makes decisions on even the smallest issues, and the members of his party generally wait obediently for his instructions.

Damaged relations with the EU

The Sweden/Nato episode shows that Orban is harming Hungary's interests, says Budapest-based political scientist Peter Kreko of the Political Capital Institute.

"Hungary is increasingly isolated within the EU and Nato, for example because of the delayed ratification of Sweden's membership of Nato and its blocking of EU resolutions," he told DW. "This has led to a sustained crisis of confidence between Hungary and its partners."

Hungary's isolation is most obvious when it comes to Ukraine. Orban is the only head of government in the EU to maintain friendly relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and to oppose both military and financial aid for Ukraine from the EU.

Hungary at odds with key allies

Orban has also been railing against the US under President Joe Biden in a way that is more usual for members of Europe's far right. He has openly said that an overly strong US presence in Europe is damaging for the continent. He is the only prime minister in the EU to openly oppose Ukraine's accession to the bloc.

One of his reasons for this is that he says it would serve American interests in Europe. Relations between the US and Hungary are now worse than they were even during the last 10 years of communist rule in Hungary.

Orban has lost all his one-time allies in the EU countries of Central and Southeastern Europe — from the Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland to former Bulgarian PM Boyko Borisov — as they are no longer in power.

The only one left is the recently re-elected Slovak PM, Robert Fico. So far, however, although Fico has been making blatantly pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian statements, he has not yet openly opposed or blocked EU policies.

In Western Europe, too, potential allies such as Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right Rassemblement National and Italian PM Giorgia Meloni, are keeping their distance. Neither are interested in a formal alliance with Orban and his Fidesz party. Meloni is explicitly pro-Ukrainian and persuaded Orban at the special EU summit earlier this month to abandon his veto on a €50 billion aid package for Ukraine.

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