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Hungary votes on Sunday. What will this mean for its relationship with Europe?

- April 6, 2018
Fireworks light up Budapest on May 1, 2004, as Hungary and nine other European countries celebrate joining the European Union. On Sunday, Hungary’s Euroskeptic Fidesz party is expected to win with a commanding lead. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)

Hungarians vote Sunday — and the outcome will be significant for the politics of the European Union. Recent polls tend to show the right-wing Fidesz party leading in opinion polls with more than 40 percent.

A convincing win for Fidesz Prime Minister Viktor Orban will reinforce the E.U. veto role the governments of Hungary and Poland have designed for themselves — and the “Visegrad group” they form with Slovakia and Czech Republic in the European Union.

Economically and financially, Hungary is dependent on Western European markets and investments — as well as E.U. structural and investment aid. But in recent years, Budapest and Warsaw have pushed back against Brussels-based governance. Triggered by their opposition to the E.U.’s refugee policy, in part, the Hungarian and Polish governments campaign on a nationalist agenda championing the sovereign counternarrative to “more Europe.”

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Despite this dependence on Brussels, the results of a 2017 survey on coalition building illustrate Hungary isn’t much of an E.U. team player — and most interested in its neighborhood.

How we did our research

Participants in the survey developed by the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) responded anonymously to an online questionnaire asking about their perceptions and experiences of interactions between governments of E.U. member states. All told, we surveyed more than 400 policymakers and professionals working on E.U. affairs/E.U. policies within each of the 28 member states.

Survey questions dealt with the density of interaction, shared interests and responsiveness, preferred partnerships and modes of advancing European integration. Participants also ranked member states according to their influence on E.U. policy areas.

The EFCR published survey results and analyses as an interactive pdf and a policy brief, along with the raw data.

Hungary is a regional networker with little outreach

Here’s what we learned. According to bureaucrats and think-tankers within the country, Hungary was closest to Poland and Slovakia. Hungary saw its essential partners as other Visegrad members — and its neighbors.

Hungarian policy professionals also perceive Germany and, to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom as important interlocutors, but not ones that share Hungary’s interests.

The survey revealed neither German nor British respondents show reciprocal interest in Hungary. Aside from Poland and Slovakia, policy professionals in all other member states describe Hungary as a disappointing coalition partner — the U.K., Poland and Greece are similarly unpopular in this regard.

Meanwhile, largely due to disagreements over migration policy, the Hungarian professionals surveyed express most disappointment in the country’s partnership with Germany, followed by France, Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands and Greece.

Only the other Visegrad countries — Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — regard Hungary as an essential partner. Some E.U. member states saw Hungary as an important ally on issues like foreign policy and security, a view expressed by respondents from Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. Romania gave Hungary a thumbs up on security, as well as economic and social policy.

In sum, Hungary comes across as a regional networker with strong ties to neighboring countries. However, the country has only marginal influence beyond its immediate neighborhood. Despite efforts to engage with Germany and the U.K., the former pays little attention to Hungary, and the latter is leaving the E.U.

What does this mean for E.U. cohesion?

If the views of Hungary’s bureaucrats and think-tankers polled for ECFR’s E.U. Coalition Explorer generally reflect those of its political class, the country is more wary of European integration than most other E.U. members. They prefer to deal with a range of E.U. and foreign policy issues on a national basis rather than within the E.U. framework, or within coalitions of member states.

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In Hungary, this ECFR survey showed little support for coalitions pushing for greater European integration. But the survey did reveal relatively widespread backing for the euro zone and, to a lesser extent, the Common Foreign and Security Policy and E.U. energy policy as areas in which coalitions could move ahead.

Hungary is also an outlier on the notion of a common E.U. policy on Russia, compared to other survey respondents. Like Greece, it expresses strong reservations about the idea — a position that it may have adopted because of the bargaining power that could flow from establishing special relations with Russia.

Among Hungarian policy professionals, the proposal for a common E.U. border police and coast guard has significant support but is polarizing: Proportionally, more Hungarians (26 percent) reject the proposal in favor of a national approach than any of their E.U. counterparts — aside from the British (30 percent). In contrast, Hungarians had low support for proposals related to common asylum, migration, justice and home affairs policies.

More generally, Hungarian bureaucrats and think-tankers appear to support “more Europe” only on key issues such as the single market, climate policy and European defense.

These views don’t necessarily hold true for all Hungarians, despite the public support for the Orban government and its Euroskeptic statements — reflected, for instance, in the huge Budapest rally with tens of thousands of supporters in March. According to an E.U.-wide poll the ECFR commissioned around the time of its survey of the E.U. Coalition Explorer, the Hungarian public generally has a more positive view of the E.U. than Hungarian bureaucrats and think-tankers.

Given these trends, Hungary will likely maintain its approach of weakening the E.U. to prevent the organization from interfering with national policies. Moving forward, Budapest’s ability to organize an E.U. caucus around the Visegrad group that opposes German policy preferences might be Hungary’s only tool to force Berlin to address its concerns not only about migration but also about economic development in the east.

Otherwise, an alliance by the Visegrad states opposed to a “Europe of ever-closer union” may become more threatening for European cohesion. Obstruction will remain an important tactic for Budapest as it works to gain the attention of, or extract concessions from, other E.U. member states.

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Nonetheless, Budapest will try to avoid biting the hand that feeds it, particularly in relation to financial flows. In this context, the budget negotiations for the E.U.’s Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021-2027 will set the margins of Hungarian maneuverability.

Should net contributors to the budget and reform-minded countries build a strong coalition, they will test the power of the Visegrad group. Orban himself could abandon his opposition to Brussels if he is forced to choose between Hungary’s financial benefits and the veto.

Josef Janning is Senior Policy Fellow and Head of the Berlin Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.