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Hungary risks further isolation with EU oil embargo veto

May 4, 2022

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Brussels are at odds again. Hungary refuses to support the planned oil embargo against Russia. But now even former allies such as Poland are turning their backs.

Viktor Orban, man stands at lectern, flags in the background
Viktor Orban won a fourth consecutive term last monthImage: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban is embarking on his fourth consecutive term in office and for the fourth time, he has the backing of a strong two-thirds parliamentary majority. In the midst of Russia's war against Ukraine, his new term begins with yet another conflict between Hungary and the European Union, which Orban has long regarded as the greatest threat to his country.

This time, the disagreement is over EU plans for a much discussed oil embargo against Russia. The details are still being negotiated, but there is now a broad consensus among EU member states to introduce sanctions on the Russian oil industry.

With the exception of Hungary, which was the only member to speak out against an oil embargo and intends to veto such sanctions. Though various European media outlets have reported in recent days that Hungary might agree to the sanctions if Brussels were to grant temporary exemptions for oil imports, the Hungarian government has dismissed the reports.

Hungary has decided

Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto said during a visit to Kazakhstan on Tuesday that his government would not agree to any sanctions that made oil and gas imports from Russia to Hungary impossible because this would put the country's energy security at risk.

Peter Szijjarto, man speaking in front of two microphones, flag in the background
Hungary will not vote for oil sanctions, says Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto Image: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, Gergely Gulyas, Orban's chief of staff,  spoke out against an oil embargo. When presented with a list of questions by DW, a spokesman for the Hungarian government declined to answer, referring instead to statements by Szijjarto and Gulyas and pointing out that the Hungarian government was sticking to its position.

"The Hungarian government has made itself very clear," said Peter Kreko, a political scientist with the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute. "It's not completely out of the question that the government may still modify or change its stance,but it is very clear about its veto position," he told DW.

Taking a gamble?

The Hungarian government has officially justified its intention to veto oil sanctions with the country's strong dependence on Russian energy. Hungary is, however, by no means the EU nation with the highest imports in that respect.

Russian shipments cover about 58% of Hungary's annual oil needs. In Slovakia, Russian oil accounts for 96%, and Lithuania and Finland receive about 80% of their oil from Russia. These countries are not opposed to an oil embargo. Slovakia would, however, like to take advantage of an exemption for Russian oil imports.

EU unveils plans to ban Russian oil

Perhaps Hungary's "no" to an oil embargo has other reasons. More to the point, it could be a gamble on Brussels — the European Commission has so far not disbursed the billions earmarked for Hungary from the COVID recovery funds because of concerns about corruption.

The Commission also launched a case against Hungary under the new rule of law mechanism last week. "Maybe all of this is playing a role in the decision not to go along with the sanctions," Kreko said. "In any case, the relationship between Hungary and the EU institutions is thoroughly poisonous."

Orban should go 'see an eye specialist'

The announced veto is just another foreign policy milestone driving Hungary further into isolation within the EU and globally. Hungary is the only EU member that has not yet clearly condemned Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine.

Prime Minister Orban did criticize the war nominally, but has not uttered a word critical of Putin. Hungary has so far only grudgingly supported anti-Russian sanctions, and the government refuses to permit arms shipments to Ukraine via Hungarian territory.

Vladimir Putin shakling hands with Viktor Orban
The Russian president and Hungarian prime minister are close friendsImage: Kremlin Press Office /AA/picture alliance

The stance has caused all of Hungary's former allies among the eastern states of the EU, including Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia, to break with Budapest. For Orban, the break with Poland will probably prove to be the most painful.

Last month, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland's deputy prime minister, accused Orban of being blind to Russian war crimes in Ukraine — and recommended that he "see an eye doctor."

Defiant and irrational

"Hungary's foreign policy position in Europe has never been as bad as it is now," said Kreko. "The Orban government has maneuvered itself into a dead end," he said, adding that he could not see a "rational approach" or "sensible strategy."

"Hungarian foreign policy seems to be determined only by defiance and irrationality, and is moving in a downward spiral," he predicted.

Crowd of people holding lit candles and Ukrainian flag
These Hungarians in Budapest protested to show solidarity with UkrianeImage: Marton Monus/REUTERS

Viktor Orban has also come under fire from elsewhere for his Putin-friendly stance. Recently, the head of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, accused him of wanting to annex parts of western Ukraine, which is home to a Hungarian minority. Danilov said that this was why Hungary was cooperating with Putin, who had warned Orban in advance about the attack on Ukraine.

Damaging to Hungary's image

The allegations created a stir in Hungary. Foreign Minister Tamas Menczer and government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs dismissed the "lies" and "fake news" invented because Hungary was not supplying weapons to Ukraine.

Kreko said that he could not see any signs that Hungary wants to take over territory in western Ukraine. "Orban seemed very surprised by the war against Ukraine, and Hungary is not sending weapons or soldiers to the country," he argued, adding that such accusations were "groundless and irresponsible so long as no evidence is presented."

"Nevertheless, what remains is that because of its Putin-friendly foreign policy, Hungary is doing great damage to its image."

This article has been translated from German.

Headshot of a smiling man with glasses and blond, curly hair
Keno Verseck Editor, writer and reporter