Monday, February 26, 2024

Child-abuse fiasco could delay Hungary’s Nato vote

Hungary’s paedophile scandal could further delay Sweden’s Nato entry, while weakening Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán on the EU stage.

Hungarian MPs were waiting for 21 February to see if Orbán would put Sweden’s Nato-entry ratification on the parliament’s spring agenda.

Hungary is the last of 31 Nato allies to give Sweden the all-clear, amid growing US and German pressure for Orbán to give way.

But following the Hungarian president’s shock resignation on Saturday (10 February), the parliament will now be busy choosing a new head of state instead, in a process due to take more than 30 days.

President Katalin Novák resigned due to public outrage that she wrongfully pardoned a paedophile in April last year.

It was the biggest scandal to hit Orbán’s ultraconservative Fidesz party since one of its founders, former MEP József Szájer, was caught by Belgian police at a gay orgy in Brussels during the pandemic.

“A delay [on Nato] is imminent,” said Márton Gyöngyösi, an MEP from the Hungarian right-wing opposition party Jobbik.

“Plenty of excuses to delay Nato ratification,” he added.

“This whole resignation affair will buy time for Orbán regarding Nato because this is now the hot topic domestically,” also said Zsuzsanna Végh, from the German Marshall Fund (GMF), a think-tank in Berlin.

One “excuse” Orbán might give was that Hungary needed to replace Novák before doing Nato, because Hungary’s president had to sign off the Nato ratification bill, Gyöngyösi said.

But this did not hold water, warned Ágnes Vadai, an MP from the Democratic Coalition, a centre-left Hungarian opposition party.

“There will not be one second without a president. She [Novák] is still in office and during the election process the speaker will take over the duties of the president,” Vadai said.

“There is no legal obstacle to [Nato] ratification — so it can happen,” she added.

Novák’s fall aside, Orbán was locked in a staring contest with Swedish prime minister Ulf Kristersson.

The last time they met — for 15 minutes in the corridors of an EU summit in Brussels on 1 February — Orbán told Kristersson to come to Budapest first as a sign of respect, but Kristersson said he’d only go to Hungary after ratification was completed.

Orbán’s loyalty to Nato is in doubt due to his friendly ties with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

But the Nato delay has more to do with Orbán’s domestic politics and personality than with geopolitics, the GMF’s Végh said.

The Hungarian leader had accused Sweden of slandering his government over democratic backsliding and now Orbán “needed some sort of way to save face,” Végh added.

“There’s no reason at all to hold up ratification, but it’s very hard to call because everything depends on him — on one individual’s whim,” she said, in a snapshot of Orbán’s illiberal system.

Fallen star

Meanwhile, the Novák affair cost Orbán a key MP at a delicate time in EU politics — Judit Varga.

Varga also resigned and quit politics on Saturday because she had countersigned the paedophile’s pardon in her former role as justice minister.

She had been expected to lead Orbán’s European Parliament election line-up in June and was a potential future Hungarian EU commissioner, said Végh.

Varga was “very popular, very high profile — she knew Europe and she spoke foreign languages,” added Végh.

The Novák-Varga female duo was also meant to make Orbán’s Fidesz party look less misogynistic at a time when it was courting new allies, such as Italian prime minister Roberta Meloni.

“It was important for the image of the party both domestically and internationally,” said Végh.

“They’ve been hyping these women and exclusively them — I don’t see anyone else who could replace them,” said Vadai, the opposition MP.

But there was no way for Varga to make a comeback, experts said — not least because Varga’s ex-husband, Péter Magyar, went on a social-media rampage last weekend accusing Fidesz of a shady cover-up and of “hiding behind women’s skirts”.

Gyöngyösi, the opposition MEP, said: “As Orbán’s regime requires puppets, almost anyone will do [in Fidesz’ lead EU role], who is sufficiently servile and speaks a European language”.

The imbroglio might see Fidesz MEPs Tamás Deutsch or Balázs Hidvéghi run as Orbán’s lead EU-election candidates, Vadai and Gyöngyösi speculated.

Várhelyi 2.0

It might also see Fidesz loyalist Olivér Várhelyi nominated for a second term as EU commissioner, Végh said.

Várhelyi is currently responsible for the neighbourhood and enlargement portfolio, including EU aid to Ukraine and Palestine.

This portfolio had become “too geopolitical” for Hungary to get again next time round, due to the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Gaza wars, Végh said.

But if Orbán and his far-right EU friends do well in June’s EP vote, he might try to invent a hot new EU commission portfolio for Budapest to grab instead.

“It could be something about [the] protection of democracy and families — something with an identitarian political profile,” Végh said.

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