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Could Hungarian PM Orbán face consequences for his diplomatic world tour?

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban attends a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, 5 July 2024
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban attends a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, 5 July 2024 Copyright Valeriy Sharifulin/Sputnik via AP
Copyright Valeriy Sharifulin/Sputnik via AP
By Aleksandar Brezarvideo by Maria Psara
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The Hungarian autocrat has popped up in in Kyiv, Moscow, and Beijing just as his country takes over the presidency of the Council of the EU. But to what end?

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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán arrived in Beijing on Monday, once again irking his European counterparts.

The visit comes after Orbán first went to Kyiv before an impromptu trip to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in what Orbán dubbed “Peace Mission 3.0”, causing a diplomatic tempest in European circles.

According to diplomatic sources, the EU is increasingly concerned about Orbán's self-appointed role as a roving European ambassador-slash-negotiator. The consensus is that he should have made it clear that he only represented his own country, not the EU.

Instead, the illiberal Hungarian leader has been quite ambiguous about his position. He has prominently displayed the EU presidency logo in his communiques, and Putin himself referred to Orbán as a representative of the European Council, despite Brussels earlier distancing itself from the "mission".

There is also the matter of simply being in the same room with Putin to discuss Ukraine on his terms, as Brussels and EU member states vehemently oppose the unprovoked full-scale invasion Putin launched in February 2022.

After little more than a week into the Hungarian presidency of the Council of the EU — under the slogan "Make Europe Great Again", a clear reference to former US President Donald Trump's notorious tagline — the tensions couldn't be higher.

"This is a strategic campaign to ridicule the European Union and to show that PM Orbán can make all these uncoordinated moves which are clear violations of the EU's common and agreed positions, and does not have to fear negative consequences,” Daniel Hegedüs, Researcher at the German Marshall Fund, told Euronews.

“On the one hand, this expands his future room for manoeuvre and future political autonomy, but on the other hand it seriously undermines the perception of EU foreign policy among key partners."

Crossing a line

During his trip to Moscow, Orbán bragged that he was the only European leader who could speak with Putin.

“The number of countries that can talk to both warring sides is diminishing,” Orbán said at the press conference in the Kremlin last Friday. “Hungary is slowly becoming the only country in Europe that can speak to everyone.”

But could the Hungarian PM seriously contribute to any peace process between Russia and Ukraine?

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban leave a hall after a joint news conference following their talks in the Kremlin, 5 July 2024
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban leave a hall after a joint news conference following their talks in the Kremlin, 5 July 2024AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

"Orbán is the only European head of state or government who is ready to talk to Putin," explained Hegedüs, "violating the basic principle established jointly by EU member states that talking about Ukraine without Ukraine is out of the question. So it is not a question of capacity, but of will.”

Hegedüs did not see "any positive contribution of this kind of wayfaring diplomacy to the solution of the problem of the war in Ukraine" because it "would require the involvement of all partners."

The bloc's top leaders have already condemned Orbán's attempts to conduct diplomatic forays under the EU banner.

As soon as reports of the Moscow trip emerged, President of the European Council Charles Michel hit out at Orbán, reminding him he has "no mandate" to negotiate on behalf of the EU during his tenure.

Josep Borrell, the EU's top diplomat, stressed in a statement issued last Friday that the visit "takes place, exclusively, in the framework of the bilateral relations between Hungary and Russia".

The EU has further means of responding to Orbán's provocations, including asking Michel to raise the possibility of shortening the Hungarian presidency in front of the Council. The question is whether member states are ready to take this route.

However, EU ambassadors are expected to demand explanations during a meeting next Wednesday.

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