Is Orbán serious about leaving the EU?

14 February 2022

7:40 PM

14 February 2022

7:40 PM

First the UK decided to leave the EU. Then in Poland, lawmakers started talking about it. Is Hungary now seriously considering Huxit? For the first time ever, Viktor Orbán has insinuated that leaving the union could be a possibility. The Hungarian Prime Minister kicked off his campaign for re-election over the weekend by attacking Brussels’s ‘Jihad’ against his country and suggesting that continued membership of the EU might not be possible.

This is obviously an alarming prospect for the EU. Over the course of Orbán’s premiership, Vladimir Putin has brought Hungary into his orbit. The latest step in that process was a 15-year gas deal signed in September. Russia will now supply about half of Hungary’s gas. The Kremlin has made other inroads, such as the state nuclear programme’s involvement in constructing two new reactors. If Russia did invade and occupy Ukraine, a Hungary outside of the EU and firmly inside Russia’s sphere of influence would place the sphere of Russian control at the gates of Vienna.

But if Orbán wanted to deliver on his thinly-veiled threat, he would need to jump through a number of legal and political hoops. First and foremost, leaving the EU would mean amending Hungary’s constitution. This is not something that Orbán can do via referendum: he would need a parliamentary supermajority in his favour. At the moment, his Fidesz party and their coalition partners, the Christian Democrats, have enough seats in Hungary’s parliament to do this, should they wish.

But Orbán’s window of opportunity is closing. Elections are coming up in less than two months. The opposition and Fidesz are currently very close in the polls. Given how slanted Hungary’s electoral system is towards rural Fidesz strongholds, an outright opposition victory will be a difficult task. What is more likely is that the opposition will deprive Orbán of his supermajority. If this happens, Orbán’s wide latitude to force constitutional change will disappear. That would make the legal path to exiting the EU far harder.

Then there is the political side. In most polls, 75 to 80 per cent of Hungarians back staying in the EU. Over time, these results can of course change. But it would be a real surprise if they changed quickly enough for Orbán to avoid a political cost in the run-up to the election. It will be especially tough to sell an EU exit during a period of economic difficulty, since single market access and cohesion funding are central to the Hungarian economy.

Even if Huxit isn’t immediately likely, the deeper concern for Brussels is that it gradually becomes more normalised as it did in the UK. Rather than an immediate geopolitical nightmare, Hungary’s path out of the EU could resemble the old parable about boiling a frog: if the temperature increases gradually, the frog won’t notice that it’s being cooked.

This article was first published in the EuroIntelligence morning briefing. For a trial subscription click here.

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