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Viktor Orbán's anti-woke resistance has made him the 'splinter under the fingernail' of the EU

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary's parliament will convene an emergency session on Monday to do something its western partners have waited for, often impatiently, for more than a year: to hold a vote, finally, on approving Sweden's bid to join the NATO military alliance.

But Hungary's governing party, led by nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has signaled that it will boycott the session, blocking the chance for a vote and further delaying a decision on Stockholm's bid. It's the kind of obstruction of key policy objectives for which Orbán has become notorious within the European Union.

“We are the sand in the machinery, the stick between the spokes, the splinter under the fingernail,” Orbán said in a speech to tens of thousands of supporters in 2021.

That “stick between the spokes” tactic, and Orbán's role as Europe's perennial spoiler, has brought the EU to breaking point time and again as he has blocked crucial decisions to leverage concessions from the bloc, forcing its leaders to scramble to find workarounds.

Now, frustrated EU officials are trying to determine what Orbán seeks to achieve with his obstructionist strategy, and how they might overcome it.

"We have Orbán fatigue now in Brussels,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told reporters ahead of an EU summit on Thursday, where the Hungarian leader threatened to derail plans to provide Ukraine with a major funding package. “I can’t understand, I can’t accept this very strange and very egoistic game of Viktor Orbán.”

A proponent of an alternative form of populist governance that he calls “illiberal democracy,” Orbán campaigns against the EU at home, portraying himself as a “freedom fighter” against an overzealous Brussels bureaucracy.

Has railed against what he describes as “woke culture,” and in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Budapest last year, referred to liberalism as a “virus.”

It has long been conventional wisdom within the EU that Orbán's intransigence is purely transactional: that he is holding up key decisions as a way to force the bloc into releasing billions in funding that it has withheld from Hungary over alleged breaches of rule-of-law and democracy standards.

But Péter Krekó, director of the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital, said that while securing the funds is important to Orbán to shore up Hungary's ailing economy, Europe's longest-serving leader is motivated by more than just cash.

“I think we have to abandon this idea that there is only one single reason that explains all this,” Krekó said. “Orbán is also doing it for recognition. He can meet with and talk to the most important leaders of the European Union.”

Indeed, as leader of a country with fewer than 10 million inhabitants, Orbán has successfully used his veto power in the EU to give Hungary a decisive voice among much larger members like Germany, France and Italy.

By Orbán's own admission, the need for unanimous support for some EU policy decisions is the only tool that a small country like Hungary can use to assert its will among the greater powers.

“Hungary sees unanimous decision-making as the last guarantee of the protection of its national interests,” he said in November.

Daniel Freund, a German member of the Green party and lawmaker in the European Parliament, said Orbán's serial blocking of crucial EU decisions shows that his veto power has given him influence within the bloc that endangers its very ability to function.

Unanimity, Freund said, is “becoming a tool for blackmail and extortion, and it’s actually a huge security risk” which has allowed Orbán to undermine EU unity on issues from support for Ukraine to NATO expansion.

On Thursday, leaders from the EU's 27 nations gathered in Brussels to try, for a second time, to pass a crucial $54 million financial aid package to Ukraine, a summit that Orbán forced by vetoing the aid in December.

Orbán lifted his veto shortly after the summit began, bowing to pressure from leaders of Europe's larger nations. Ukraine would get its money, and a crisis was averted.

But with his veto power, the nationalist leader will have plenty of further opportunities to sow discord within the EU. He has opposed a 5-billion euro ($5.4 billion) weapons fund for Kyiv and warned that he's prepared to “ slam the brakes ” on Ukraine's path toward joining the bloc.

His government has also dragged its feet on approving Sweden's NATO accession, and is the only member of the alliance not to have ratified its bid.

Orbán's conduct has gained him admirers among like-minded nationalists in Europe and the United States who are hostile toward the Brussels and Washington approach to issues like immigration, LGBTQ+ rights and Russia's war in Ukraine.

He has endorsed Donald Trump in each of his runs for the U.S. presidency, and is hoping for a Trump victory over President Joe Biden in elections in November.

As the EU prepares for its own elections in June, Orbán is angling to take a leading role in a burgeoning anti-EU movement of conservative forces across the continent, and hopes a right-wing shift will bring his ideas into the mainstream, said Freund, the EU lawmaker.

“He’s trying to position himself as the leader of the anti-European camp,” he said. “He has the impression that the far right is on the rise, that this is all going his way and he’s basically just waiting for it to fully happen.”

There are signs that Orbán’s hopes for a right-wing resurgence could come to fruition as polls show euroskeptic parties surging.

An anti-Islam populist and Orbán ally won elections in the Netherlands in November, while the far-right Alternative for Germany party has risen to second place in national polls behind Berlin's mainstream conservative opposition.

Krekó, of Political Capital, said that Orbán is seeking to “weaken” EU institutions that have gotten in his way by pressuring Hungary to crack down on corruption, restore judicial independence and respect LGBTQ+ rights.

"He’s very clear about his antagonism towards the European institutional system and he would be happy with a European Union that does nothing more than free trade — plus, of course, structural funds coming to Hungary,” Krekó said.

Widely considered to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the EU, Orbán has been accused by his critics of promoting Moscow’s interests over those of his EU and NATO allies, and of preparing to lead his country out of the EU entirely.

But in an interview in December, Orbán denied he planned to take such a step.

“My plan is not to leave Brussels, but to take it over,” he said.