Analysis. Waving the specter of the nuclear option seems like more of a bluff, although it does show the extent of Brussels' impatience with Orban's constant diktats.

The EU threatens Orban with ‘the nuclear option’ for obstructing Ukraine aid

There are signs of an upcoming showdown on the eve of Thursday’s extraordinary summit which will be decisive for the approval of the €50 billion aid package to Ukraine – a showdown that wouldn’t rule out even the use of the so-called “nuclear option” to deprive a member state of its voting rights.

Once again, Hungary, led by Viktor Orban, is in the crosshairs, dismissive of the idea of sending more money to Kyiv – or, at least, of doing so without first getting his hands on the roughly €30 billion in European funds earmarked for Budapest that have remained largely frozen.

The issue, first discussed at the December summit, had been postponed with the aim of negotiating a solution that would also suit the Eastern European strongman. So far, however, the talks have turned out to be a dialogue of the deaf, with Budapest continuing to call for unbundling aid to Ukraine and approving it from year to year, and the rest of the member states insisting on the need to agree on a predictable aid framework for Kyiv. This need has become even more pressing after Washington’s failure to approve financial support for its Ukrainian ally. Brussels has tried to soften Orban’s opposition by releasing about a third of the funds destined for Budapest.

But the Hungarian premier remained immovable. After pocketing the check, he kept stonewalling, causing the conflict to rise to such a fever pitch that the possibility of neutralizing Hungary by depriving it of its voting rights in the Council is becoming less and less theoretical. The procedure, provided for in Article 7 of the EU Treaty, allows for the suspension of certain membership rights of member states, including the right to vote in the Council, when a country shows serious and repeated violations of the rule of law.

This “nuclear option,” repeatedly floated as a possibility for dealing with Orban’s Hungary and Poland when it was run by far-right PiS, has so far been taboo. The other states have been reluctant towards the idea of voting against a member of the club, not least for fear of setting a precedent that could one day backfire. Furthermore, depriving a state of its right to vote requires unanimity by the other member states. Previously, Poland and Hungary had given each other cover; now, Robert Fico’s Slovakia will have Budapest’s back. Only a few months after the new government took office, Bratislava has already landed in hot water with the EU over the reform of the Criminal Code sought by the Slovak premier posing a risk to the rule of law.

As a result, waving the specter of the nuclear option seems like more of a bluff, although it does show the extent of Brussels’ impatience with Orban’s constant diktats. And the political price that the Hungarian premier could end up paying is still heavy: among the avenues explored to curb Orban’s opposition is that of stopping Budapest from assuming the EU Council’s rotating presidency, which is scheduled for July – a crucial six-month period in which the balance of European institutions will be redrawn in light of the June elections. That might be the only weapon that could induce Orban to see reason.

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