Brothers in arms: Poland and Hungary seek to transform the EU

EU member states are increasingly disappointed with Warsaw and Budapest who will encounter difficulties to find like-minded partners to shape EU policy beyond their veto coaltion.

In the past two years, which EU member states have disappointed your country’s government most? ECFR put this question to EU policymakers and policy experts in all 28 member states in spring 2018, asking them to list up to five countries. The response was unambiguous: the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Poland had failed to meet respondents’ expectations or ambitions more than any other player in the EU. In the 2015 iteration of the survey, Poland was not among the three most disappointing member states, but Greece was. At the time, there was a liberal-conservative government in Warsaw and Athens was engaged in tense negotiations on its third financial assistance package.

Disappointment in the UK, Hungary, and Poland is strikingly intense. Within the dynamics of ECFR’s survey, it is exceptional for the percentage score measuring a country’s disappointment in a fellow member state to reach double-digits. When it does so, this often reflects an ongoing bilateral disagreement, such as the border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia. Indeed, 33 percent of Slovenia’s disappointment vote share went to Croatia, while 24 percent of Croatia’s went to Slovenia. A double-digit score can also stem from frustration with a country’s outsized influence. Germany received a disappointment vote share of between 15 percent and 19 percent from Hungary, Poland, and four other countries, while France received share of between 10 percent and 32 percent from seven countries, including Hungary, Poland, and the UK. Poland was more disappointed with France than any other member state – and the frustration was mutual.


Hungary received a disappointment vote share of between 10 percent and 25 percent from every other EU member state except Poland (4 percent) and Bulgaria (5 percent). Poland received a disappointment vote share in this range from 20 countries, and a share of between 4 percent and 8 percent from five others. Hungary and Croatia expressed no disappointment in Poland. The UK fared even worse, receiving a disappointment vote share of between 10 percent and 32 percent from 23 member states, and of between 3 percent and 6 percent from Lithuania, Greece, Hungary, and Malta.

With the UK exiting the EU, Hungary and Poland will remain the standout sources of disappointment for other member states. The three countries have never formed an especially close alliance: London has had a significantly stronger relationship with Warsaw than with Budapest, as seen in the survey’s finding that frustration with the UK is far more common among Polish policymakers and experts than their Hungarian counterparts.

However, ECFR’s data indicates that Warsaw and Budapest form one of the closest partnerships in the EU. In measures of intensity of contact, shared interests, and responsiveness, Polish and Hungarian policymakers and experts listed each other more often than anyone else. Both Poland and Hungary have an ambivalent attitude towards Germany, seeking contact with Berlin but seeing it as unresponsive and as sharing few interests with them. Maintaining relations with Germany still seems to be considerably more important to Warsaw than to Budapest, but the country’s general focus on Poland has decreased significantly since 2016. France is nothing but disappointing to Hungary and Poland: very few Polish and Hungarian respondents list Paris among their leading EU partners in intensity of contact, shared interests, or responsiveness.

The Poland-Hungary alliance largely focuses on eastern EU member states. The countries only look to the west in their one-sided attentiveness to Germany, and in Warsaw’s and Budapest’s interactions with London and Vienna respectively. Poland and Hungary mainly interact with the other two members of the Visegrád group, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Indeed, all members of the group concentrate on one another, albeit in a two-plus-two structure. The very close ties between Budapest and Warsaw parallel those between Prague and Bratislava. Furthermore, ECFR’s survey indicates that Bratislava and Prague are wary of being forced to accept the agenda and approach that Warsaw and Budapest pursue within the EU. Slovak policymakers and experts still see themselves as committed to deeper EU integration – as do, to a lesser extent, their Czech peers. In contrast, only two of 58 Polish and Hungarian respondents (both of them Polish) said that their country was committed to deeper European integration.

With their intense interactions and appreciation for each other, Hungary and Poland have formed a strong brotherhood. Yet they sometimes demonstrate a lack self-assuredness. Hungarian respondents included both countries in their list of the seven most influential member states, while Polish respondents included Hungary but not Poland. Although Hungarian respondents included Hungary on this list more than any other country, Polish respondents’ view of Poland’s influence matched the EU average (German respondents had a more positive view of Poland’s influence than Poles themselves). Another weakness in the Polish-Hungarian brotherhood can be found in views of deeper integration and variable geometry (the term for advancing integration among only a sub-group of EU countries). In comparison to their counterparts elsewhere in the EU, Hungarian and Polish respondents were very resistant to member states establishing core groups. They were more open to informal or ad hoc coalitions, and relatively supportive of national decision-making in their policy preferences.

Nonetheless, Hungarian and Polish respondents also differ in their views of “more Europe”. While they are generally sceptical of deeper integration, both national groupings perceive the completion of the single market as a project all member states should pursue (as do Slovak and Czech respondents). They have the same attitude towards the formulation of a common digital policy. Yet most Polish respondents believe the Union needs a common policy on Russia and Ukraine, while their Hungarian peers national governments to set eastern policy. Similarly, Polish respondents do not share Hungarians’ enthusiasm for common EU defence and border-security policies.

Poland and Hungary cannot count on the support of their Visegrád partners in their campaign against Brussels

The Hungarian-Polish relationship also suffers from their preferences for partners on key issues. Poland does not see Hungary as an important ally on either of its top two policy priorities, Russia and energy. Meanwhile, Hungary does not see Poland as a crucial partner on border security and defence.

Therefore, the partnership between Poland and Hungary seems to be one of aspiration more than convergence. Despite their differing priorities, they need each other to defend the few positions on European integration they share, and to resist what they perceive as EU institutions’ and member states’ illegitimate interference in their internal affairs. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s de facto leader, would like the EU to be a community of sovereign states that share a common market. With the traditional champion of this view on the verge of leaving the EU, Hungary and Poland now see their bilateral ties as increasingly important.

At the same time, it seems that both countries are failing to reach out to the rest of the EU. They cannot even count on the support of their Visegrád partners in their campaign against Brussels, while their links to other member states remain relatively weak. Acting as a veto coalition, they could block the traditional path to deeper integration, as it is impossible to ratify a treaty change without them. Nonetheless, the brotherhood will have little power to shape EU policymaking more broadly unless it gains new members or gathers a coalition of like-minded allies.


The EU28 Survey

The EU28 Survey is a bi-annual expert poll conducted by ECFR in the 28 member states of the European Union. The study surveys the cooperation preferences and attitudes of European policy professionals working in governments, politics, think tanks, academia, and the media to explore the potential for coalitions among EU member states. The 2018 edition of the EU28 Survey ran from 24 April to 12 June 2018. 730 respondents completed the questions discussed in this piece. The full results of the survey, including the data and its interactive visualisation, will be published onn 30 October 2018. Findings of the previous edition, held in 2016, are available at The project is part of ECFR’s Rethink: Europe initiative on cohesion and cooperation in the EU, funded by Stiftung Mercator.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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