Viktor Orbán was clear. His political priority in Europe, Hungary’s prime minister said in April, was better relations with Poland — restoring a close alliance frayed by war in Ukraine.
Two months on, though, Hungary and Poland seem further apart than ever because of fundamental differences in responding to Russian aggression towards Kyiv.
Poland has become one of the EU’s most vocal advocates of tougher action against President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile Orbán spent weeks resisting tougher sanctions against Moscow out of concern for his country’s economy, finally winning the right to continue to use cheap Russian oil sent via pipeline.
Poland is aghast. “We cannot understand the logic of profiting from the war, from the blood and sacrifice,” one Polish official told reporters ahead of the most recent EU summit, when the temporary reprieve for pipeline oil was agreed. At a small protest outside the Hungarian embassy in Warsaw on Saturday, protesters depicted blood flowing out of a mock oil pipeline.
The rift between Budapest and Warsaw shows how Europe’s political order has been changed by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and has potential repercussions for Europe after years in which Hungary and Poland were a troublesome duo for the EU’s executive.
Brussels frequently alleged erosion of governance standards in both Orban’s Hungary and Poland under its conservative nationalist government led by the Law and Justice party (PiS). But EU disciplinary processes were inconclusive because each country could wield a veto to shield the other from sanctions.
“The bond between [Poland and Hungary] has been a safety net for them, meaning they had no fear of being stuck in the Article 7 procedure and having to bear the consequences,” said one EU diplomat, referring to the EU’s mechanism for disciplining recalcitrant member states. “But there is little love left between the two and . . . a question of whether we see a further breakdown of relations.”
Edit Zgut-Przybylska, a Hungarian doctoral researcher at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, said both countries were in a new situation because of the war in Ukraine.
Hungary greatly depends on Russia for its energy needs, and projects such as a €12.5bn build-and-finance nuclear plant expansion have deepened that symbiotic relationship, while relations with Kyiv had deteriorated even before the war over the rights of ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine.
“Orbán couldn’t decouple from the Kremlin even if he wanted to, which makes him radioactive and toxic for Polish politicians,” Zgut-Przybylska said, adding that Poland’s PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński “cannot pragmatically look away”.
“There are elections in Poland next year and PiS has to answer to Polish society, the majority of which supports a rethinking of Hungarian relations,” she said.
Paweł Jabłoński, under-secretary of state at Poland’s foreign ministry, told France 24 this month that Hungary’s policy on oil was “detrimental to the security of Europe”.
Having clinched the partial exemption from the EU’s oil embargo, Hungary further whittled away at goodwill among other member states when two days later it threatened to veto again over sanctions against Russian orthodox patriarch Kirill, a Putin supporter who had blessed the invasion of Ukraine. The patriarch was left out of the sanctions.
Diplomats say the so-called Visegrád group, which also comprises the Czech Republic and Slovakia, looks moribund, with those two countries also distanced from Hungary.
Daniel Hegedüs, a foreign-policy analyst at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, said Orbán was trying to avoid an open confrontation with Warsaw.
“Poland led by PiS used to be Hungary’s prime strategic ally . . . Budapest made a lot of investment in this relationship, and Orbán is simply not ready to realise the losses,” Hegedüs said.
“It is better to have this relationship cooled down and in limbo than risking a public fallout and facing all the EU and foreign policy challenges emerging from that.”
On Tuesday Judit Varga, Hungary’s justice minister, met Poland’s ambassador and posted on Facebook that “although certain circles of interests would love to see the break of the Warsaw-Budapest alliance, our ties remain strong”. Hungary and Poland were the two countries that had received the largest number of Ukrainian refugees, she said.
Diplomats say the most recent hearing of the Article 7 process against Hungary saw a marked increase in the number of member states asking questions and making interventions, suggesting more engagement because of concerns about Budapest’s behaviour. “It is a sign of fatigue growing among member states,” said one.
Poland is now enjoying more favour in Brussels, after pledging adjustments to its contentious legal regime. Warsaw last week won the European Commission’s approval for its €36bn Covid-19 recovery plan, cemented in a visit by commission president Ursula von der Leyen to Warsaw.
Hungary’s €7.2bn EU package for the same purposes remains stuck, while the commission in April formally triggered its new so-called conditionality mechanism, allowing it to withhold regular funds to Budapest because of corruption concerns.
EU capitals want to show solidarity towards Warsaw, given its tough line against Moscow and willingness to take in 3.5mn Ukrainian refugees, far more than any other member state.
Nevertheless, the decision to approve Poland’s recovery plan was divisive in Brussels, given persistent concerns over Warsaw’s willingness to row back its attacks on judicial independence. Brussels made clear Poland had to stick to agreed targets to get its funds.
“It’s not as though everything is fine in Poland,” said one senior commission official. “It’s an ongoing struggle.”
Miklós Mitrovits, a Poland expert at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, suggested Poland and Hungary still had a lot in common and said Orbán believed that PiS “will sooner or later have to come to terms with Fidesz”.
“Once the war is over he can expect PiS to value him as a partner once again in its domestic and foreign policy battles. The sooner the war ends, the sooner the ideological friendship can be settled,” Mitrovits said.