Orbán Hot as EU Adopts “partial” Embargo on Russian Oil

  • Viktor Orbán is coming off reelection with a huge diplomatic victory
  • The prime minister is securing Hungarian supply while securing his hold on power
  • Orbán is spearheading an illiberal opposition to the EU status quo
Orban
Source: Hungary Today

Why is Orbán hot right now?

Answer: Orbán is bringing home a diplomatic victory by securing Hungary’s energy supply, asserting national sovereignty, and strengthening the anti-establishment bloc’s voice in the EU. 

On May 30, the European Council agreed in principle to ban all imports of Russian oil by sea, in its sixth round of Ukraine-related sanctions. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán negotiated an exemption for oil imports via pipeline, securing a win for Hungary and other landlocked European countries—namely the Czech Republic and Slovakia—that are unable to import energy by sea and thus rely on Russian pipelines.

Orbán is ensuring oil will continue to flow into Hungary at a time when consumers face increasing energy prices. Hungary relies on Russian oil more than any other member state of the European Union, and a majority of the resource enters the country via the Druzhba pipeline, which cuts through Ukraine. Notably, Orbán has convinced his European counterparts to permit Hungary to import Russian energy even if this pipeline is interrupted by the conflict. This will keep prices down for Hungarian consumers and give the leader time to find alternative suppliers while the war in Ukraine cuts off supply.

Orbán can sell this deal as a victory to his constituents in the sense that it is a win for national sovereignty. Hungary is linguistically isolated and ethnically homogeneous, and the prime minister has rallied domestic support in the past by “standing up” to forces of European integration in Brussels. Zoltan Kiszelly, at the Hungarian-based Szazadveg think tank, compared this moment to Orbán’s 2015 maneuver to block the EU’s imposition of mandatory refugee quotas, when the leader claimed that refugees threatened to erode Hungarian culture and “nationhood” itself. In 2022, Orbán is once again coming hot off the heels of reelection with an eye toward proving his allegiance to Hungary over European unity.

At the same time, Orbán is solidifying his position as de facto leader of the anti-establishment bloc in the EU. While other national leaders express their grievances with Brussels less loudly, Orbán represents a real and present faction of the EU that rejects France and Germany’s liberal status quo. Orbán, with others including Andrzej Duda of Poland and Miloš Zeman of Czechia, spearheads a European nationalist-populist strain that challenges Brussels’s ideals of social liberalism and democracy. And with the departure of former German chancellor Angela Merkel, Orbán is now the longest-serving leader in the regional organization.

What is changing Orbán’s temperature?

Answer: Reelection, national emergency, and the partial embargo are helping him to solidify his power in Hungary and the EU.

Orbán’s reelection in April is raising his temperature now. A broad mandate for his Fidesz party gives him the space to take risks. And now that the pressure of campaigning is largely gone, Orbán can devote more energy to his own projects. This reelection, as aforementioned, is particularly important as it crowns Orbán the longest-serving leader in the EU.

Furthermore, he has extended his national emergency powers, originally set to expire June 1. As the COVID-19 pandemic has become less urgent, Orbán has invoked the crisis in Ukraine to grant himself power to rule by decree. Bypassing parliament, he can implement the policies he wants with relative ease.

Since his revision of the Hungarian Constitution in 2011, Orbán has gradually amassed power for himself in both Hungary and Europe. He has stated his intent to be never again ousted from power, learning from defeats in 2002 and 2006. Moreover, he has pledged to build a strong “illiberal” Hungary capable of challenging the European status quo.

This year’s concessions from the European Council demonstrate the ways in which the prime minister has exploited EU vulnerabilities to assure his favored policies come in hot. He understands the salience of the Ukraine issue to European leaders, and their particular need for credibility after Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, early in May, announced her hopes for a Russian oil ban. Orbán also took advantage of the European Council’s requirement for unanimous consent, seizing the EU’s moment of need to extract concessions for himself. He negotiated the pipeline exemption to “secure supply” while letting Europe leave with a victory: indeed banning—at least some—Russian oil.

What is driving Orbán?

Answer: A results-oriented personality and nationalist ideology are driving the prime minister to secure Hungarian energy and stand up to Brussels.

Orbán is a leader motivated by achievement and delivering results. To that end, he is willing to challenge constraints on his power. In the mid-1990s, he led Fidesz to turn away from its neoliberal ideology toward embracing a conservative populist narrative to perform better in national elections. Fidesz subsequently won in 1998, and Orbán inaugurated his first term as prime minister. He oversaw the rewriting of the Hungarian constitution in 2011 to overcome domestic constraints on his power, delivering it to his people as a necessary step toward eradicating Communist influence in Hungary. In 2015, he overcame the obstacles set by the EU—much like today—to evade mandatory refugee quotas.

In the present context, this personality of motivation by achievement means Orbán can tangibly show his people he is securing their energy supply—in spite of EU pressure. He can show the EU he is willing to come to the negotiating table—in spite of domestic pressure. And he can show Vladimir Putin he is willing to stand up to the EU from within—in spite of both international and domestic pressure.

Moreover, Orbán is driven by his own Hungarian nationalism. He was born into and grew up in Soviet-occupied Hungary and saw his country beset with economic difficulties for decades during that time. He originally rose to notoriety in 1989 in response to this experience, speaking out against Communism in the name of Hungarian sovereignty. Fidesz emerged from the idea that fresh, young voices were necessary to restore Hungary in the wake of Communism.

In this vein, Orbán rallies his constituents around the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which reduced Hungary to a third of its former size after World War I. He celebrates Hungary’s linguistic uniqueness and strives to preserve and strengthen Hungarian culture. Orbán fears outside influence, from the EU to Islam, by virtue of his lived experience: external actors repeatedly threatening Hungary as a people.

In the present crisis, Orbán feels empowered to stand up to Brussels. The party he has led for three decades has—for a fifth time—delivered him a broad mandate. He undoubtedly likes being designated “the most dangerous man in the European Union,” for it emphasizes the pull he has and the leverage he can exploit. As the longest-serving EU leader, Orbán believes he finally has the power to personally restore Hungary to its rightful place in the international community. In the most immediate term, he can bring the heat to show Brussels that he still matters. And this drives him to fight even harder.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Orbán’s win in the European Council shows how democratic backsliding challenges the EU’s identity from within, compromising European unity and exacerbating the consequences of the Ukraine crisis.

Orbán is proving the “illiberals” indeed have a voice in the European Union, challenging hopes for regional unity. For one, he is exposing the limitations of the unanimous consent requirement, illustrating how but a single leader is necessary to coerce the EU into compromise. Moreover, Orbán is revealing a disconnect between EU policies and popular interests like keeping fuel sources stable. Most impactfully, Orbán challenges the EU’s liberal democratic identity itself. Hungary’s leader is a fifth-term prime minister facing EU reprimand for allegedly disregarding the rule of law. Therefore, his ability to singlehandedly block the passage of this package contradicts EU efforts to promote freedom and democracy.

For Hungarians, this partial embargo will embolden Viktor Orbán, helping him enact more of the changes he wishes to see at home and in Europe. It will affect readers around the world by complicating the progress of the Ukraine war and raising oil prices.
If European unity indeed slips, uncertainty in Ukraine threatens to further destabilize Eastern Europe and disrupt global energy and food markets. Moreover, as Orbán heats up, Putin will too. The reelected Hungarian leader’s rejection of Western liberalism bolsters the Kremlin’s anti-democratic narrative. Finally, the EU ban itself will increase global oil prices, raising gasoline and heating oil costs for consumers while ceding suppliers—including Russia—even more revenue.