Viktor Orbán’s trip to Moscow in breach of EU treaties, legal service says

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Viktor Orbán’s diplomatic freelancing with Vladimir Putin on his solo trip to Moscow last week contravened the EU’s treaties, according to the bloc’s legal service.

The Hungarian prime minister’s unannounced visit to Russia in a bid to promote peace talks with Ukraine drew sharp condemnation from EU and Nato allies who promptly said Orbán did not represent them in his talks with the Russian president.

The EU’s legal service told member states on Wednesday that Orbán’s actions had violated the bloc’s treaties that forbid any “measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the Union’s objectives”, according to three people familiar with the matter.

He also violated a legal provision that calls on all members to perform foreign policy activities “unreservedly in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity”, they added.

“This was a political mistake to go to Moscow,” European Council president Charles Michel, who represents the EU’s 27 members, told the Financial Times. “In 10 years, I have never seen such a severe reaction from 26 other countries to the actions of [one country] . . . a yellow card.”

“This is a problem,” Michel added. “This way of working is not acceptable.”

Charles Michel
Charles Michel, European Council president: ‘We have to avoid falling into a trap’ © Johanna Geron/Reuters

Hungary took over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU council of ministers — a role that allows members of Orban’s government to chair meetings on July 1, just four days before his trip to Moscow. But other capitals believe Orbán abused that status to give his meeting with Putin more weight.

Putin is under EU sanctions, and the bloc’s stated position — which Orbán has agreed to — condemns Moscow as the aggressor in the Ukraine war. Orbán endorsed immediate peace talks to end the war, in direct contravention of stated EU and Nato policy that there can be no such discussions without Ukraine’s backing.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken said any leader visiting Russia or China must make Nato’s positions clear that the military alliance is “not going anywhere, Ukraine’s not going anywhere, the European Union is not going anywhere”, he said on Wednesday from the sidelines of the Nato summit.

Russia will “continue to be ostracised” so long as it continues to attack civilian targets such as its missile strike on a children’s hospital in Kyiv earlier this week, Blinken said.

Michel described the strike on the hospital as a “war crime”, saying it showed Putin’s “political answer” to Orbán’s so-called peace mission.

Michel said he had met Orbán at the Nato summit and was in touch with the other EU leaders to decide how to proceed.

“With an attempt to divide the union . . . we have to avoid falling into a trap,” said Michel. “We don’t want to punish ourselves in a collateral effect of trying to punish someone . . . Let’s be smart.”

Many EU member states have discussed boycotting the traditional informal ministerial meetings to be held in Hungary during the country’s presidency, several diplomats told the FT. A smaller group of capitals has also begun informal discussions on how to use the EU treaty to restrict Orbán’s room for manoeuvre during the presidency.

Some EU officials have privately floated stripping Hungary of the rotating presidency, officials said.

“EU institutions should not have fallen into Orban’s trap in the first place,” said one senior diplomat. “EU legislation should be used to protect the union.”

Elina Valtonen, Finland’s foreign minister, told the FT that Orban needed to understand it was impossible for countries to be “abstract, neutral observers” of what Russia depicts as its conflict with the west, and that all sides must be clear in where they stand.

Orbán’s actions made a strong case for removing unanimous decision-making in the EU, particularly on foreign policy issues, Valtonen added.

Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington and Paola Tamma in Brussels

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