Walking the tightrope: Orban, Fico, and the future of central European diplomacy

Governments in Budapest, and now Bratislava, are treading a fine line of alignment with the West, showing their central European neighbours what they can get away with, and risking the credibility of EU foreign policy and values

Czech Republic’s Prime Minister Petr Fiala welcomes his Slovakia counterpart Robert Fico, right, to Prague, Czech Republic, Friday, Nov. 24, 2023
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Petr David Josek

Amid increasing global multipolarity, a central tension is arising within the European Union: newer member states, particularly those of central Europe, practice full alignment with western Europe and the United States on paper, but unlike their older counterparts, don’t always apply this in practice. Instead, they are pursuing an “à la carte” approach, mixing and matching partners – and values – depending on the matter at hand, rather than committing to total allegiance with the West.

Within the Visegrad countries, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban is a veteran at taking “à la carte” policymaking to its limits. This sets a dangerous example for what his Polish, Czech, and Slovak counterparts, as well as those further afield, could get away with. Ultimately this could pave the way for a pickier and less EU-aligned central Europe and carry grave consequences for the future of the union.

So far, Orban has walked the tightrope of EU rules, carefully managing the damage control abroad when breaking them. After his meeting with President Vladimir Putin in October, Orban quickly explained to his Western counterparts that it was a necessary step to secure gas delivery, for example. To keep his balance, Orban has practised alignment when necessary. Most recently, while Orban blocked new aid to Ukraine, he did not, as many in Brussels feared, veto the European Council’s decision to begin its accession process.

Orban attempted a similar balancing act about following Western liberal democratic values. In December, the Hungarian government published further judicial reforms in an attempt to receive EU funds. On paper at least, Orban appears to be fulfilling EU conditions. Yet, without much attention from abroad, the Hungarian parliament simultaneously approved a new law on the protection of national sovereignty, much like the Russian anti-NGO and anti-media law. Human rights groups have raised concerns about the law as it could be used to target activists and journalists, going against EU values of media freedom and free speech.

Under the Law and Justice party’s rule, the Polish government echoed this approach to Western values, testing the limits of when rule of law and minority rights should be adhered to. But the government employed a less heavy handed approach over their many quarrels with the European Commission, instead trying to find allies within the EU. For example, until the very last moment, Polish government officials were looking for allies all over central Europe to oppose the introduction of qualified majority voting and slow down the impact of the Green Deal on regulation and industries.

Poland is a heftier geopolitical player than its central European neighbours. As a result, its politicians usually push for “special” relations with the US, building regional security blocs like the Three Seas Initiative, or having direct links to Paris and Berlin. Unlike Hungary, and now Slovakia, Poland has pursued a lite “à la carte” approach since joining the EU, picking and choosing within the West, and only occasionally outside it, as in the case of its relations with China. Under the new premiership of Donald Tusk, former European Council president, the government is set to further dial down its “à la carte” approach to its foreign policy, while steering Poland closer to the EU’s liberal democratic values.

The government change in Poland is a promising sign for a more unified EU. But while Orban suffers relatively few consequences from the EU for his pickiness, he shows other central European states how to pick from the European menu only those partnerships suitable to them, without ordering the necessary side dishes like rule of law or European solidarity.

The Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico has certainly paid keen attention, choosing from the menu only when suitable. In the opposition, Fico used rule of law arguments against the government, in line with EU positions. Now in power, he has dismantled courts fighting organised crime, significantly weakening the rule of law, like in Poland and Hungary. And on the European stage, Fico has already proved to be a tricky partner against Russian sanctions and funding for Ukraine, and joined Orban in espousing pro-Putin rhetoric. Fico has also pursued closer relations with China over electric vehicle development, despite the EU’s de-risking strategy. But, in an attempt to keep his balance, Fico has not opposed Ukraine’s EU accension, for example.

Czechs, being happy without a populist government for a while, may now begin to ask themselves why they should follow the values-based policy of their western neighbours when their fellow central Europeans can pick what best suits them. The Czech Republic will have elections in 2025, and polls do not look good for the current pro-European coalition.

Czechs may now begin to ask themselves why they should follow the values-based policy of their western neighbours when their fellow central Europeans can pick what best suits them

In the meantime, Poland is likely to need an ally in central Europe that is not so picky when looking at the liberal democratic menu and that is willing to fully align with the West. While the new foreign affairs minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, has showed little interest in building close relations with the Czech Republic in the past, going forward, Poland should make the most of a natural ally in Prague.

This is especially the case as the “à la carte” approach could be taken to new extremes when central European countries become net payers to the EU budget, probably by 2027, accounting for the possibility of Ukraine’s accession. Then, this cherry-picking could metastasise into severe debates about whether to stay in the EU. In many ways, central European politics is not based on coherent ideas and long-term views of EU membership, but increasingly on a populist package of interests, rather than values.

A return of Donald Trump to the US presidency could bring this transactional approach to the table as part of the daily menu. The United States is seen as a guarantor of stability much more strongly in central Europe than it is further west. Under a second Trump administration, central European leaders could decide to tie themselves to the US differently, particularly if there is a strong feeling within their societies that they can get away with picking up only some features but not the whole package of liberal democratic values and principles, let alone if this approach is legitimised by the new US administration.

We are undoubtedly entering a new era of “à la carte” international relations. In this era, the introduction of qualified majority voting for EU common security and foreign policy seems necessary for the actions of the EU to fully align with its own foreign policy. But that could be a tipping point for some central European leaders.

The Hungarian government is said to be considering holding a referendum together with this year’s European elections, which would make Hungary’s continued EU membership dependent on the release of frozen EU funds, floating the still theoretical question of “Huxit”. Since 2016, this option has been firmly on the menu. Even if the UK clearly shows that this course might be hard to swallow.

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


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