The European Union has a population of around 450 million and one of the world’s biggest economies.
So how is it that Hungary, a small country with only 10 million people and a lackluster economy blighted by high inflation, this past week steamrollered Europe’s plan to throw Ukraine a financial lifeline worth $52 billion?
The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, torpedoed the aid package, strongly supported by much bigger countries like Germany, France and Poland, by exploiting the power of veto held by each of 27 member states over key decisions relating to foreign and security policy and spending.
The requirement for unanimity on important matters, designed to ensure that small countries have a voice, but which many see as a grave design flaw, means that no decision gets taken unless everyone is on board.
Other European leaders have mostly shied away from threatening to use, never mind actually wielding, the veto. But Mr. Orban has embraced it as a disruptive weapon in his battles to shape policy and engage in what Daniel Freund, a German member of the European Parliament and critic of the Hungarian leader, described as “constant game of extortion and blackmail.”
On the eve of a summit meeting in Brussels on Thursday on Ukraine, the European Union’s executive arm released 10 billion euros, about $11 billion, in funding for Hungary that had been frozen over its violation of various E.U. rules. Officials said the timing was coincidental but many saw it as a payoff. A further €17.6 billion remains frozen.
After insisting in Brussels that he was not using his veto to extract money — “it’s not about a deal. We represent approaches and principles,” he said — Mr. Orban told Hungarian radio: “This is a great opportunity for Hungary to make clear that it must get all of what it is due.”
There are growing concerns, however, that Mr. Orban wants to paralyze decision-making in pursuit of a broader ambition: upending the European Union in its current form and remaking it in Hungary’s image as a bastion against liberal values, immigrants and what he calls the “woke movement and gender ideology.” Hungary, he says, is a “counter model” that works.
“The fear is that he actually wants to create chaos and disorder and destroy the E.U. from within,” said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, a research group in London. “He used to be more transactional but people I talk to in Brussels say he has become more unreasonable, more truculent, more self-confident and more destructive.”
At the same time, Mr. Orban has also become more isolated. The victory of centrist and liberal forces in a recent Polish general election ended the eight-year rule of Law and Justice, a conservative nationalist party closely aligned with Mr. Orban in hostility to Brussels.
Since Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Hungary has worked consistently to water down European sanctions and, echoing a favorite Kremlin talking point, denounced them as hurting Europe, not Russia. But he still went along in the end, endorsing all sanctions applied on Russia by the European Union.
Last week, however, he broke ranks. He kept his veto weapon sheathed when fellow leaders voted to open negotiations with Ukraine over E.U. membership, something he had previously said he would never accept but in the end accepted by leaving the room during the vote. But he used his veto to block the funding package, moving beyond previous bluster to mount a frontal attack on Europe’s core policy of helping Ukraine.
Membership talks usually drag on for many years and Mr. Orban signaled on Friday that he would do everything in his power to make sure they lead nowhere. “Luckily we have time to correct the decision,” he said in a post on social media.
Mr. Orban’s one-against-all stand in Brussels showed that relations between Hungary and the European Union “are likely broken beyond repair & ultimately heading towards breaking point,” Mujtaba Rahman, the head of the Europe practice at Eurasia Group, said on social media on Saturday.
Orban was “a structural problem for the EU,” he added, because the survival of a Hungarian system increasingly adrift from the bloc’s values “is going to require ever more maverick and extreme behavior by him in future — on Ukraine & more.”
Mr. Orban, who has tight control of the Hungarian media through state conglomerates and loyal business cronies, is not going anywhere in Hungary. His governing Fidesz party last year won its third general election in a row.
Also seemingly immovable is the European Union’s commitment to unanimity on the most important decisions.
There have been demands for many years that decisions be taken instead by a majority, with votes weighted to reflect the population of each country, but that would require changing treaties, something that virtually no leader wants to risk trying to do.
In a speech to Poland’s Parliament on Tuesday, Donald Tusk, the new prime minister, outlined a vision of Europe diametrically opposed to that promoted by Mr. Orban. Europe, he said, was more than just a trade bloc but a guardian of what he described as “European political values of democracy, the rule of law, media independence and freedom of speech.” But he ruled out treaty changes.
Mr. Orban for his part has voiced growing contempt for the European Union. He in October derided it as a “bad contemporary parody” of the Soviet empire and mocked its impotence in face of his defiance of European rules requiring member states to protect press freedom, minority rights and judicial independence. “We had to dance to the tune Moscow whistled. Even when Brussels whistles, we dance the way we want to,” he said.
The agreement in Brussels on Thursday to at least start membership negotiations with Ukraine gave a symbolic boost to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who had just returned empty-handed from a visit to the United States. Desperately needed money for his war effort is being held up by political divisions in Congress, and Ukraine hoped that money from Europe would fill the gap.
European leaders will meet in January to try to get Mr. Orban to relent. If he again uses his veto, as seems likely, Europe will still deliver money to Ukraine using various cumbersome alternative mechanisms that don’t require Hungary’s approval.
That would tide Ukraine over in the short term but cast a shadow over Europe’s long-term ambitions as a reliable geopolitical player.
Ivan Krastev, co-author of “The Light That Failed,” a book that examined disenchantment with liberal democracy in Eastern Europe, warned in The Financial Times on Friday that if “Europe cannot solve its Orban problem” it risks paralysis and fragmentation.
The European Union, built on the ruins left by World War II, has defied repeated predictions of imminent doom, most recently after Britain voted to leave in 2016. That set off alarm in Brussels — and joy among E.U.-skeptics — that Brexit might trigger an avalanche of defections by other countries.
But nobody followed Britain’s lead and even longtime critics of the bloc like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, whose far-right party performed unexpectedly well in a general election last month, have shifted from advocating withdrawal from the union to demanding an overhaul of its priorities.
Mr. Orban, too, insists Hungary will not leave or be forced out, not least because it needs the money. It is the largest recipient per capita of European funds. His mission, he said in Budapest recently, is not to take Hungary out but to “take over Brussels.”
An important step on that path are elections next summer for the European Parliament, an assembly whose 705 members are chosen by voters in all 27 member states. It has limited powers and is mostly ignored by the general public, but nonetheless serves as a barometer of Europe-wide sentiment.
Growing public unease across much of the continent over a surge in illegal immigration this year in the numbers could tilt the European Parliament sharply to the right in the summer elections and end the current isolation of Mr. Orban’s Fidesz party, which is now largely friendless and powerless in the European legislature.
And it could also spell more trouble for Ukraine.
Mr. Orban, the EU’s most Kremlin-friendly leader, earned a shout-out from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Thursday, the day European leaders gathered for their summit.
Breaking ranks with his European allies, Mr. Orban traveled to China in October for a meeting with Mr. Putin. He assured him that Hungary — heavily dependent on Russia for energy supplies and huge loans for a Russian-built nuclear power plant — “never wanted to confront Russia” and has “always been eager to expand contacts.”
Mr. Putin lamented on Thursday that so far only Mr. Orban and the new prime minister of Slovakia, Robert Fico, were calling for an end to aid for Ukraine. (Mr. Fico, while highly critical of Ukraine before a September election, declined to join Mr. Orban in using his veto.)
That could change, however, if, as Mr. Orban hopes, right-wing forces hostile to immigrants, minorities and Ukraine do well in Europe’s summer elections.
In what amounted to a test run of the message he hopes will mobilize European votes to follow Hungary’s lead, Mr. Orban told a Fidesz rally last month: “The French, the Germans, the Italians, the Austrians would give half their lives if they could again have a country without migrants.” He added: “The Hungarian model works.”
Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed reporting from Brussels.