Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban Image Credit: AFP

Maybe the Eurosceptics were right. Maybe there is an element of truth to their long-advocated claims that the European Union is a good idea but it ultimately won’t work.

Well that’s what seems to be happening right now. At least on the face of it if you consider the fact that EU leaders failed to reach an agreement on a long-term financial package to assist Ukraine — and all because Hungary and Vickor Orban refused to budge. That 50 billion euro package needs the approval of all 27 leaders in the bloc ro be transferred to Ukraine, and Orban is having none of it.

These are unique times for the EU — ‘challenging’ is one word that describes the situation, ‘unprecedented’ another. Never before has the EU faced a situation where there’s an all-out conflict waging just beyond its eastern border, and never before has a potential member asked to join while it is waging an existential conflict — and with a nuclear-armed enemy too.

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Collective economy

The very notion of the block evolved from the ashes and ruins of the Second World War — a belief that never again should the nations of Europe descend into the bloody horrors of war, and that economic prosperity and mutual cooperation provide mutual and inalienable foundation of peace. But for that to work, nations would have to put aside their historical biases and beliefs, and work — trust — together.

Don’t get me wrong — the EU has been tremendously successful creating the world’s largest collective economy behind the US and China, forging a common market for 500 million people.

For the life of me, I’ll never fully understand why a majority of UK voters chose to walk away from that economic reality seven years ago — and for a growing number of those Britons, that’s a question they are asking more loudly too.

But right now, the EU seems split in a manner that is far deeper than the rifts and grievances underscored by Brexit or indeed how to react to the coronavirus or wages of refugees. It’s 26 versus 1: the EU against Hungary.

And because of the way the EU Council — that’s the body of heads of state that collectively set the budget and deals with the political issues that ultimately set the agenda for the rest of the machine that is Europe — operates, it is unable to move forward on aid for Ukraine.

Precipitating the crisis

The 26 other leaders unanimously agree that 50 billion euros — 33 billion is in long-term low-interest loans and the remainder in non-repayable grants — should be given, and it makes up half of the current 100 billion financial review of its long-term budget. The EU sets its budgets out over five years, and elements are reviewed and revised annually, which is what’s happening now and has precipitated this crisis.

Long-term observers of the EU will tell you that it seems to go from crisis to crisis. Things only happen at the last minute. Deadlines are meant to be stretched to the end, and Brussels has been known to stop clocks to buy more time when the crisis-du-jour requires. But this? This seems deeper. Intractable. Different.

As often happens, EU officials look at their calendars and manage to squeeze things and move them around, and there’s an extraordinary meeting set, likely for Brussels, towards the end of January.

Yes, people’s peoples are talking to other people to pencil it in. If you’ve ever tried to organise a dinner party where 27 people have to attend, you know what it’s like …

Mix of history and politics

But there’s history to this. And politics too.

Over the past decade, the EU has had a series of differences with Hungary and Poland. Refugees. Judicial reform. Undermining the democratic principles that are mandatory for member states to join.

Following the recent general election in Poland and the defeat of the right-wing government there, eight years of tensions between Brussels and Warsaw have eased considerably. Donald Tusk, once again the PM of Poland and a former EU President, has committed his new government to taking the rule of law very seriously indeed.

The previou Law and Justice (PiS) government was at loggerheads with the EU over the independence of the judiciary and gay rights, so much so that it had been fined and had its portion of EU funding withdrawn. With Tusk in power, relations are back to normal — or will be when those funds are released.

But Orban, an admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, remains intractable.

The EU has always been creative in finding ways around issues that seem intractable and already some are looking at restructuring the funds in a way that would avoid Orban’s veto.

Ireland’s leader, Leo Varadkar, has suggested that maybe the 26 could provide those funds as a bilateral agreement between the 26 in agreement — having their respective governments underwrite the 50 billion rather than including it in the pot of funds set aside for the 27.

If the 26 do ahead in funding the aid package to Ukraine between themselves by leaving Hungary aside, it sends a very clear message indeed that there’s a two-tier EU at work right now. And that’s not what the founders had wanted. So yes, maybe, just maybe, the Eurosceptics are on to something …