BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — With Turkey completing its ratification of Sweden’s bid to join NATO, Hungary is the last member of the military alliance not to have given its approval.
After more than a year of delays, and consistent urging from its Western partners to move forward with Sweden’s application, the Central European country and its conservative populist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, are once again in the spotlight.
Orbán has long promised that Hungary wouldn’t be the last NATO member to ratify Sweden’s request to join the alliance. Yet Monday’s approval in Turkey’s parliament has upended those guarantees, and others in the alliance are now asking: When will Budapest follow Ankara’s lead?
Hungary’s government, Orbán says, is in favor of bringing Sweden into NATO, but lawmakers in his governing Fidesz party remain unconvinced, offended by “blatant lies” from some Swedish politicians that have excoriated the quality of Hungary’s democracy.
Yet Orbán’s critics say that there is no such schism within his party, and that when it comes to Hungary’s approval of Sweden’s NATO membership, Orbán alone is in control.
While Turkey made a series of concrete demands from Sweden as preconditions for supporting its bid to join the alliance, Hungary’s government — long under fire in the European Union for alleged breaches of democracy and rule-of-law standards — has expressed no such requirements, hinting only that it expects a greater degree of respect from Stockholm.
Hungary’s opposition parties, which favor Sweden’s membership in NATO, have made several attempts over the past year to schedule a vote on the matter. But lawmakers from the Fidesz party, which holds a two-thirds majority in parliament, have refused to lend their support.
Agnes Vadai, a lawmaker with Hungary’s opposition Democratic Coalition party and a former secretary of state in the Ministry of Defense, said that the opposition would once again seek to force a vote on Sweden’s membership before parliament’s next scheduled session in late February.
But there’s “very little chance” that Orbán’s party will support the initiative, she said, adding that Hungary’s intransigence on the issue is the prime minister’s attempt to prove his weight on the international stage.
“It has nothing to do with Sweden now, it has nothing to do with Turkey now. It’s merely Orbán’s personal attitude,” she said. “It shows that he’s driven not by political rationale, but by personal vanity. There is no gain for Hungary in this game anymore, because it’s a game that he’s playing.”
As Turkey’s parliament prepared to vote on the ratification on Monday, Orbán announced that he’d sent a letter to Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, inviting him to Budapest to negotiate on NATO membership.
Kristersson hasn’t commented publicly on Orbán’s letter, but Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström said that he saw “no reason” to negotiate with Hungary on the matter, noting that Budapest hasn’t presented any conditions for accepting Sweden into the alliance.
On Tuesday, Orbán tweeted that he’d had a phone call with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in which he had “reaffirmed that the Hungarian government supports the NATO membership of Sweden,” and that he would continue to urge his parliament to approve its bid.
But Dorka Takacsy, an analyst and research fellow at the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy, said that Orbán’s invitation to Kristersson showed that the fate of Sweden’s NATO bid lies not in the hands of Hungarian lawmakers, but with Orbán himself.
Orbán’s letter, she said, “dismantled the narrative that there was any dispute within the parliamentary group of Fidesz … It simply points to the fact that it is Orbán, the prime minister himself, who manages this whole issue single-handedly.”
Vadai, the opposition lawmaker, agreed.
“Anybody who believed that it’s in the hands of the governing party lawmakers was seriously mistaken,” she said. “It’s the decision of Orbán and nobody else.”
A vote on the protocols for Sweden’s NATO accession hasn’t yet appeared on the Hungarian parliament’s agenda, and barring a surprise emergency session, the matter is unlikely to go before lawmakers until at least late February.
Hungary’s delays, as well as Orbán’s friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, have frustrated other allies who want to expand the alliance and provide security guarantees to Sweden amid the war in Ukraine.
With such stakes, Vadai said that she worries Orbán’s conduct on the international stage has damaged Hungary’s relationship with its Western partners.
“He pushes Hungary to the very edge of NATO now, he’s marginalizing my country,” she said. “This is just a sin.”