A visibly-nervous Viktor Orban meeting Russian president Vladimir Putin in Beijing last week (Photo: Screengrab/Kremlin.ru)
The footage of the meeting between the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his EU-ally Viktor Orbán last Tuesday (17 October) in Beijing highlighted the nervousness of the Hungarian ruler.
He appeared to realise on the spot that he was betraying the trust which underlies the functioning of the European Union. And that, in times of war, such betrayal amounts to treason.
Orbán did not have to wait long to see his worst fears confirmed.
Two days later, the US ambassador in Budapest convened a meeting of his colleagues from the other Nato-members plus Sweden in order to discuss the potential military dangers emanating from the Hungarian rapprochement with Putin.
His initiative was supported by the Czech president Petr Pavel who publicly warned against the ensuing dangers.
So far, the reaction from Nato’s side has been swifter than that from the other international organisation affected by Orbán’s disloyalty.
This is most regrettable as the policies of the European Union with respect to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict are crystal clear. The EU has imposed massive and unprecedented sanctions against Russia, not only at the level of the Russian state but also with respect to almost 2,000 individuals and entities.
A breach of loyalty
As article 4 of the Treaty on European Union prescribes that the Union and the member states shall, in mutual respect, assist each other in carrying out tasks which flow from the treaties, they have valid reasons to dismiss Orbán’s action as a breach of loyalty.
Moreover, the European Parliament has already adopted a resolution indicating that the upcoming Hungarian EU presidency should be cancelled.
Despite this clear warning, the self-proclaimed ‘illiberal’ Orbán decided to travel to Beijing and to offer his services to the Russian dictator. In doing so, he not only broke the bond of mutual trust, which underlies the functioning of the EU, but also endangered the integrity of the Union.
Contrary to empires, the EU is not based on coercion but on mutual trust.
The EU has been built bottom-up by its member states through voluntary cooperation. The participating states are only prepared to transfer sovereignty in ever wider fields to their common organisation on the condition that they can rely on each other’s solemn promises.
This principle has been solidly formulated by the EU Court of Justice in the conditionality verdicts of 16 February 2022. The core of these promises consists of the values, which the member states have in common and which they apply to their Union, notably the rule of law and democratic governance.
As a result of this process, the EU has been constructed as a democratic Union of democratic States. The values of article 2 TEU apply both to the Union and to the member states.
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This set-up forms the constitutional basis for the political judgment as to whether or not Hungary is fit for the presidency of the European Council. In this connection it must be taken into account that the European Council has started an article 7 procedure against Hungary and has imposed measures for the protection of the budget for breaches of the rule of law by that country.
Seen in this perspective, the question at hand is whether an illiberal leader can be entrusted with the task to give guidance to a democratic union of democratic states.
The aggravating circumstance in this particular case is that the Hungarian PM has added treason to disloyalty by endangering the integrity of the EU in times of war.
The term ‘treason’ does not appear in the EU treaties. Despite the circumstance that the drafters of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty have not foreseen the present predicament, there is a precedent.
At the height of the euro-crisis in 2012, the UK endangered the integrity of the EU by refusing to contribute to the rescue of the single currency. The other member states found a legal way of circumventing the British opposition by concluding an intergovernmental treaty among themselves. They saved the euro and British prime minister David Cameron called for his notorious ‘in or out’ Brexit referendum.
Elongate the Belgian presidency?
In a similar vein, the European Council may decide on the basis of article 236 TFEU to suspend the Hungarian presidency of the European Council due to persistent breaches of the EU’s values and because of gravely endangering the security and integrity of the Union.
A practical solution may be to invite the upcoming Belgian presidency to continue its activities until the blockade can be lifted.
For its part, the European Parliament must reinvigorate its resolution of 1 June 2023 calling on the council to find a proper solution.
It should pledge its refusal to cooperate with Putin’s crony in any way whatsoever. The Council of Europe kicked Russia out for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The EU should not reward Orbán for betraying the Union.