Dispatch

The view from the ground.

The End of the Affair

Europe’s illiberal alliance is disintegrating. Don’t get your hopes up though.

By , an international correspondent based in Vienna.
The Polish and Hungarian prime ministers give a joint press conference.
The Polish and Hungarian prime ministers give a joint press conference.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (left) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (right) give a joint press conference at the Hungarian parliament in Budapest, Hungary, on Jan. 3, 2018. ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

WARSAW, Poland—Central Europe’s illiberal alliance between Hungary and Poland is now in its twilight hours due to gaping differences over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although Warsaw has become one of Kyiv’s most vocal advocates, calling for tougher sanctions on Moscow and increased military aid, Budapest has shirked from any meaningful support, instead focusing on maintaining good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That divide has prompted Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to say the paths of the two national conservative governments—long fellow travelers in their opposition to immigrants, Brussels, and the rule of law—have “diverged.” Poland’s opposition to Russia’s war has gone some way to rehabilitating its image in Europe, but it is a bitter blow to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has tried to salvage the relationship by arguing that the two counties are in fact “aligned” on their hopes for Ukraine. 

“The problem in Hungarian-Polish relations is one of the heart,” Orban said recently in a controversial speech to ethnic Hungarians in Romania. “We both want exactly the same things, and yet this war is making relations with our friends difficult. … We Hungarians see this war as a war between two Slavic peoples, and as one which we want to stay out of. But the Poles see it as a war in which they are also involved.”

WARSAW, Poland—Central Europe’s illiberal alliance between Hungary and Poland is now in its twilight hours due to gaping differences over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although Warsaw has become one of Kyiv’s most vocal advocates, calling for tougher sanctions on Moscow and increased military aid, Budapest has shirked from any meaningful support, instead focusing on maintaining good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That divide has prompted Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to say the paths of the two national conservative governments—long fellow travelers in their opposition to immigrants, Brussels, and the rule of law—have “diverged.” Poland’s opposition to Russia’s war has gone some way to rehabilitating its image in Europe, but it is a bitter blow to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has tried to salvage the relationship by arguing that the two counties are in fact “aligned” on their hopes for Ukraine. 

“The problem in Hungarian-Polish relations is one of the heart,” Orban said recently in a controversial speech to ethnic Hungarians in Romania. “We both want exactly the same things, and yet this war is making relations with our friends difficult. … We Hungarians see this war as a war between two Slavic peoples, and as one which we want to stay out of. But the Poles see it as a war in which they are also involved.”

The erosion in relations between the two countries that have been flag-bearers in opposition to the European Union’s democratic norms presents an opportunity to drop the hammer on countries that flout the bloc’s rules, liberal analysts say.

What is deeply lacking now is trust. Since the first Russian missile slammed into Ukraine in late February, the Polish government has been unable to depend on Orban and his Fidesz party. Not only has Budapest delayed EU sanctions on Russia, but Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto sauntered to Moscow for a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in July. Before the invasion, Orban was the only Western leader not to visit Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after a visit to the Kremlin. 

“The Poles aren’t trusting the Hungarian partners anymore,” said Daniel Hegedüs, a visiting fellow for Central Europe at the German Marshall Fund.

The rupture means an end to Central Europe’s illiberal axis and presents an opportunity for democratic defenders to push for real consequences for those who undermine EU treaties and values. “What we have is an opportunity to drive a wedge between them,” said Wojciech Przybylski, editor in chief of Visegrad Insight at Res Publica Foundation Warsaw, a think tank. The “ultimate” step, he suggested, would be to invoke the EU’s own rules, known as Article 7, to limit voting and other rights of one of the recalcitrant member states, though he acknowledged “that would take some bold steps.” (Both Hungary and Poland have been subject to preliminary EU censure under the auspices of Article 7.)

For now, though, the split between the two black sheep of Europe’s unruly flock doesn’t spell a respite for Brussels. The European Union has been locked in a bitter dispute with both over their failure to respect the rule of law. Although both Poland and Hungary have agreed to some reforms at the behest of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, neither country has received EU COVID-19 pandemic recovery funds after receiving the cash was linked to respect for democracy. Last week, Warsaw opened fire on the commission after it claimed the bloc refused to respect the milestones it had reached to receive the grants and loans. 

“We showed maximum goodwill, but the concessions did not help,” Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chair of the ruling Law and Justice party, told Polish media. “Since the European Commission does not fulfill its obligations towards Poland in this area, we have no reason to fulfill our obligations towards the European Union.”

Budapest has been Warsaw’s ally in teaming up against Brussels, but now, they are attacking their common foe from very different vantage points—a fracture that could further weaken the illiberal axis. Orban decries the European Union as a group of liberal elites who have come down too hard on Moscow. Morawiecki claims the bloc has imperialist tendencies that need to be combated in a similar vein to Russia’s expansionist dreams. 

“Hungary and Poland used to have a strategic partnership based on shared illiberal values and a political vision built on a strong semi-authoritarian state,” Hegedüs said. “There were always differences in this relationship, and most of these could be attributed to different strategic orientations towards Russia.” Right now, “they are practically pushing opposing narratives on the European Union,” he said, but “their end goals are more or less the same.”

What the rupture does promise to do is leave Orban more isolated, especially on the European stage. In March, the defense ministers of Poland and the Czech Republic refused to attend a meeting of the Visegrad Group—a bloc of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia—in Budapest due to Orban’s position on the war. Soon after, Kaczynski slammed Orban after he refused to condemn the mass killing of Ukrainian citizens in Bucha, Ukraine. “We cannot cooperate as we had in the past if this continues,” the de facto leader of Poland warned. 

“Orban for the last 15 years behaves as if he was the spokesperson for a region, and this no longer works,” said Zsolt Enyedi, a professor of political science at the Central European University. “But the Visegrad 4 has fallen apart [and relations with Poland deteriorated], so it’s extremely difficult for him to continue this discourse that he invested so much into. Now, he has to shift to a new frame, and that is a bit embarrassing.”

One source of succor could be the American right, who see in Orban a fellow nationalist crusader. (Orban, after making a speech that horrified even his own advisors and cozied up to Putin, spoke at the Republican Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas this month.) But he’ll have to compete with Republicans who have already shifted their longing gaze to Poland, Przybylski said; one of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s biggest foreign-policy speeches was a paean in Poland to the country’s nationalistic turn.

Orban still has some potential recruits closer to home, including Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and the far-right Brothers of Italy, who are on track for an election victory in Italy’s general election next month. Throughout his career, which began as a pro-democracy reformer, Orban has returned to the drawing board again and again, each time coming back stronger on his quest to erode Hungary’s democracy. The illiberal bond between Poland and Hungary may be hanging by a thread, but the threat to Europe’s democracy has not vanished.

Amanda Coakley is an international correspondent and Milena Jesenska journalist fellow at the IWM in Vienna. She covers Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Twitter: @amandamcoakley

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