FICO-ORBAN MEETING IN BUDAPEST: COURTESY CALL OR ‘BROMANCE’?

Slovakia’s new populist prime minister will visit his Hungarian counterpart in Budapest on Tuesday. Experts disagree about the viability of a new Slovak-Hungarian ‘illiberal alliance’.
Robert Fico, the recently elected Slovak prime minister, will be in Budapest on Tuesday to meet with his opposite number Viktor Orban. The visit is, after a trip to Czechia, only the second official journey he has made abroad since being elected in September.

Though notionally part of a round of courtesy calls to neighbouring premiers customary for new leaders in Central Europe, Fico’s visit comes at a sensitive time in EU politics, which makes it more than a matter of mere protocol. Observers across Europe are keen to know which way Fico will ‘jump’ in respect to his southern neighbour at an extraordinary summit of EU leaders scheduled for February 1.

That EU meeting was initially called to try to resolve the impasse created by Orban’s veto of a 50-billion-euro assistance package for Ukraine at the European Council meeting in December. Recent events, however, mean it will likely also have to address the problem of Hungary’s looming rotating presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of 2024 and perhaps even the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights in EU institutions.

EU turbulence
On January 7, existing concerns about Hungary’s assuming the EU presidency from July were heightened by the surprise resignation of Charles Michel, president of the European Council, the man tasked with convening the EU’s meetings of heads of government.

Michel’s departure means Orban would become mediator among, and representative of, the EU’s national leaders until Michel’s successor is found. He’d do so while the allocation of top EU jobs is being settled between the Council and European Parliament after June’s European elections. Orban’s hostile relationship with the European Parliament, which has repeatedly challenged him over rule-of-law violations, risks deadlocking the process.

On Friday, to forestall a crisis, 120 MEPs from across party lines petitioned European Parliament President Roberto Metsola to request the Council suspend Hungary’s EU voting rights, making it ineligible to take over the presidency. MEPs hope to force a vote on the matter at their plenary session in Strasbourg this week.

The move revives the stalled Article 7 process launched by the European Parliament against Hungary and Poland in 2018. Previously the Article 7 process – censuring a “serious and persistent breach” of democratic standards in a member state – was subject to serious foot dragging by the Council of the EU and European Commission. However, it might now be welcomed by EU leaders wearied by Orban’s disruptive use of his veto powers.

Slovakia is key
With a population of just 5 million, Slovakia is one of the EU’s smallest member states. Yet as Article 7 sanctions against a member state require unanimity among the other 26 EU countries, Fico’s potential swing-vote is of vital significance.

In the 2000s, the two leaders, both strong nationalists, clashed repeatedly over Slovakia’s large Hungarian minority. Yet lately they seemed to have put such differences behind them. “10-15 years ago Fico was very hostile both to Hungary and Slovakia’s Hungarian community,” notes former Hungarian foreign minister Geza Jeszenszky.

Now, however, riven by internal divisions, Slovakia’s ethnic Hungarians are without parliamentary representation. “Having been reduced to a negligible force, Fico can safely ignore them,” says Jeszenszky.

Given Fico’s anti-migration rhetoric, apparent sympathy for Russia and swift assault on the country’s judicial independence soon after assuming office in October, some commentators think a Budapest-Bratislava axis may be in offing.

“They want so show that they’re not alone on Europe’s naughty step,” says Garvan Walshe, formerly a foreign policy advisor to the British Conservative Party, now a visiting fellow at the CEU Democracy Institute in Budapest.

Indeed, the visit signifies that “getting EU money to build patronage networks in the 21st century is more important than disagreements about Trianon in the 20th,” Walshe adds.

A firm alliance between Fico and Orban appears credible given the support to Fico by Orban in the run-up to the September general election. Ahead of polling day, Orban’s Fidesz party lent campaign advisors to Fico’s Smer party, while Fidesz-controlled media directed at Slovakia’s Hungarian minority (about 10 per cent of the population) gave Fico strongly positive coverage.

Information emanating from Slovakian counter-intelligence about unusual activity levels by Hungarian intelligence officers in Slovakia last year May, according to some commentators, also shed some light on the election. “Orban gave Fico a lot of help last year. Much of it was in the open and some, shall we say, perhaps rather less so,” Tomas Strazay, director of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association think tank in Bratislava, told BIRN.

Orban could well now be expecting some form of pay back for his investment, but Strazay counsels that getting it be not be that straightforward. Slovakia’s trade volumes with other EU partners are far more significant than with Hungary, and with the defeat of Poland’s nationalist-populist Law and Justice (PiS) party in October’s election, Orban is visibly exposed and in need of help with little to offer in return for the long term. “Orban needs Fico much more than Fico needs Orban,” Strazay notes.

While there could be a domestic advantage to Fico in supporting Orban on Article 7 – Orban is popular among Fico’s own voters – Strazay believes Fico may be reluctant to cross swords with Brussels in reality, however “sovereigntist” he sounded on the campaign trail. “Fico is pragmatic. Yes, he shares ground with Orban on the Migration Pact, but generally he is, quietly, far more at ease with the EU project than his public communication suggests,” Stazay says. “He’s the man who took Slovakia into the euro after all.”

There may, however, be reasons other than a natural inclination for Fico to avoid joining Orban in a scrap with the EU, asserts Zoltan Szalay, editor of the Hungarian-language Slovakian news portal Napunk. “Robert Fico is currently leading a relatively fragile coalition government that has yet to consolidate its power domestically,” he observes. As such, “he’ll not take on too many other conflicts in the EU but, rather, stick with the majority.”

Indeed, Szalay point outs, “we saw this at the EU summit in December 2023, when Fico didn’t stand by Orbán on Ukraine’s EU membership but supported Ukraine.”

Furthermore, while Fico has dismantled the Foreign Ministry’s strategic communications unit, which was tasked with countering Russian propaganda and disinformation, he has not made any personnel changes among ambassadors or other senior officials. “There seems to be substantial continuity with the previous administration in foreign policy ethos and this also counts against a strong alignment with Orban,” Strazay says.

Even so, Jeszenszky, who once served under Orban’s ambassador in Washington and later Oslo, thinks that common traits might win. “Like Orban, Fico is a man without principles, so today the two can be best friends,” he says.

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