Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has never been more isolated on the European stage, but he has taken advantage of plans for a Russian oil embargo to demonstrate that he is still a major player in the EU.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the outspoken right-wing populist has taken a softer line on Russia than other Western leaders, supporting sanctions but refusing to send arms to Kyiv and allowing state-owned and government-friendly media outlets to promote Russia's war narrative.
Orbán's stance has set him apart from other Western capitals. It has also put him at odds with Poland's right-wing nationalist government, his only reliable long-term EU ally, and drawn the wrath of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
It is also strained his ties with EU institutions, which have long accused Orbán of undermining Hungary's democratic standards. Last month, the relationship deteriorated further when Brussels began a process that could result in Budapest losing critical funds due to rule-of-law deficiencies.
The oil ban plans, on the other hand, have given Orbán, one of the EU's longest-serving national leaders and one of its most cunning operators, the chance to flex his muscles in Europe once more — and win concessions.
Orbán has seized the political spotlight in the days since European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proposed that the EU end all Russian oil imports, delaying a final agreement by demanding more phase-out time for his country before the ban takes effect.
Orbán effectively has the EU dancing to his tune, thanks to EU rules that require unanimity on major decisions. Von der Leyen flew to Hungary on Monday to discuss the oil embargo with him. The EU announced the next day that it was considering a financial compensation package for the country.
While Hungary is not the only country demanding changes to the latest EU sanctions package, it has been the most vocal, with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán calling the oil embargo a "nuclear bomb" for his country's economy.
The EU has already agreed to give Hungary two more years, but Orbán claims that the transition will take five years — and a significant amount of EU funding.
"Viktor is a player, he now got a powerful card," one former Hungarian official said of Orbán's political approach.
Orbán has been bolstered by a major victory at home last month, when he cruised to a fourth term in office with a two-thirds majority in parliament, despite international observers' claims that the campaign was not conducted fairly.
However, he has not always had his way.
One of Orbán's closest allies, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jana, lost a parliamentary election just days after his own victory, while French far-right leader Marine Le Pen — whom he openly supported — lost her presidential bid on the same day.
All of this occurred as Russia's invasion of Ukraine raised uncomfortable questions for Budapest about its long-standing policy of cultivating a friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to Péter Krekó, director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute think tank, the Hungarian leader is in a more "complicated diplomatic environment than ever before."
Orbán may not be able to rely on traditional regional allies in the Visegrád Group of Central European countries, where the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland have all taken a more aggressive stance against Russia than Hungary.
"You see that there has been a huge rift inside the Visegrád Four over Russia," one EU diplomat said.
The war has wreaked havoc on Hungary's and Poland's once-strong ties. The relationship had "worsened very much," according to a senior official from Orbán's ruling Fidesz party.
Orbán has identified one area where he can continue to exert influence: major EU decisions.
In an interview with state-owned Kossuth Rádió on Friday, he reminded everyone that if Brussels wants to move forward with its most contentious sanctions package to date, it must listen to Budapest.
Orbán stated, "In this situation, Hungary’s opinion carries just as much weight as that of the larger countries. We need a unanimous decision."
Hungary is heavily reliant on Russian oil, but officials claim that a compromise is possible. Brussels has already extended the deadline to the country. According to three EU officials, a financial package could be channeled to Budapest as part of the bloc's new energy strategy, which is expected to be unveiled next week, in order to help the country wean itself off Russian fossil fuels.
Orbán has also taken advantage of the situation to force EU leaders to meet with him face to face, demonstrating his domestic clout.
Orbán's team made sure the public knew about von der Leyen's trip on Monday by posting it on his Facebook page.
"Ursula von der Leyen in Budapest," read the post, which included a photo of the smiling Prime Minister greeting the President of the Commission.
The following day, Orbán spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron, one of the EU's most powerful leaders.
While Orbán has been firm in his opposition to the oil embargo, there have been some indications recently that he may be seeking at least a symbolic thaw in his tense relationship with Brussels in order to gain access to EU funds.
The firing of a Hungarian prime minister's office employee suspected of taking bribes is one of these signs. Concerns about corruption were a major factor in the European Commission's decision to start the process that could result in funding cuts.
Orbán's team is "looking for an exit," according to a senior Fidesz politician, who added that now that the Hungarian election is over and "they need the money," a shift can be expected.
A request for comment from the Hungarian government was not returned.
However, there are no indications that Orbán will make any major changes to address concerns about democratic norms, LGBTQ+ rights, or other pressing issues.
That could put the European Commission — particularly von der Leyen's team on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont building — in a pickle: go ahead with possible EU funding cuts or back down in order to avoid clashes with Orbán on other issues, such as future rounds of sanctions against Moscow.
The question now is "how tough the 13th floor is," according to the former Hungarian official.
By fLEXI tEAM