Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban walks as he attends a European Union leaders summit, in Brussels, Belgium December 14, 2023. Reuters/Yves Herman
Hungary's Viktor Orban was quick to get on the airwaves at home on Friday, telling Hungarians how he vetoed financial aid to Ukraine and could block its path to EU membership any time even though he had let other leaders grant Kyiv accession talks.
Orban, who has a long history of using clashes with Brussels for campaign purposes at home, can use his lone warrior image to appeal to his voters. But his isolation in the 27-member bloc has never been so striking as the moment when other leaders simply went ahead without him on Thursday by proposing he leave the room while they took the decision on accession talks.
The quick breakthrough, which was seen as a critical boost for Kyiv from its Western allies as it battles the Russian invasion and which hours earlier had looked blocked by the Hungarian leader's objections, also showed the limits of Orban's power to bend EU decisions his way.
However, the nationalist leader can still hold up future EU decisions on Ukraine's accession path, budget issues and a fresh round of negotiations on long-term aid to Ukraine next year.
Speaking on state radio, Orban left no doubt that he would use his veto power if needed -- saying Ukraine's accession to the EU would be a "very long process" and there will be around 75 occasions when the Budapest can halt it if it chooses.
"I made it clear that Hungarians would not pay for the financial consequences of this decision.... If necessary, Hungary will pull the handbrake," said Orban, who has said Ukraine had failed to meet preconditions for membership talks and called it irrational for the EU to proceed.
Orban, in office since 2010, has been at loggerheads with Brussels for years over rule of law issues as his government tightened controls over the courts and the media, non-profit organisations and academics, and his country has paid a price in frozen EU funds.
Orban said on Friday he would also go for all the frozen EU funds next year that "Hungary was entitled to get" after the European Commission earlier this week unlocked Budapest's access to 10.2 billion euros after finding it had fulfilled conditions on the independence of its judiciary.
This is only one-third of the funds suspended, as the total funding still locked for Hungary over breaches of the principle of the rule of law still amounts to some 21 billion euros.
"It is a great opportunity for Hungary to make it clear that it must get what it is entitled to. Not half of it, or one-fourth," he said, referring to future EU talks in 2024.
So Orban will continue to be on a collision course with other EU leaders in the coming months, which is just what he needs for his domestic campaign ahead of European Parliament elections next June and as he prepares to take over the EU's rotating presidency for the second half of the year.
"Orban continues to cultivate and champion his profile as an anti-EU rebel that shows no signs of abating," said Roger Hilton, a research fellow at think tank GLOBSEC.
"Despite tactically succumbing to the voting pressure on Thursday, strategically the Council Summit went very well (for him), where he is playing a longer game to inspire others and shape the policy and ideological priorities ahead of the Hungary 2024 EU Presidency."
Eurasia group analyst Mujtaba Rahman said: "the general trend in EU-Hungary relations is one where Orban is becoming ever bolder, intransigent and harder to manage".
"The fact Orban remained opposed to the deal and effectively abstained, rather than actively supported it, is an important distinction that will almost certainly pose risks - one of many to Ukraine’s EU accession path going forward."
Orban's isolation in Brussels has increased as he has lost Poland from his side, after Polish conservatives who had similarly squabbled with the EU lost power to centre-right veteran Donald Tusk in an election this year.
And Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico -- a long-time Orban ally -- was on board for both Ukraine's EU accession talks and giving more money to Kyiv.
"I can't talk on Orban's behalf, but what was conveyed to him was the need to stay united in the signal we wanted to give Ukraine. And all leaders showed they wanted to send that message," a diplomat said after the accession decision on Thursday.
Orban's resistance in Brussels gained him some bonus points in Moscow, with whom his government has maintained regular contacts even amid the war in Ukraine, earning the ire of EU leaders and the United States.
"Hungary has its own interests. And Hungary, unlike many other EU countries, firmly defends its interests, which impresses us," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday when asked about the EU's decision to open membership talks with Ukraine and Moldova.
In Budapest streets, which since November have been flooded with posters and billboards vilifying European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen as part of the government's campaign ahead of European parliament elections, Orban's latest message went down well with some Hungarians.
"He can still veto it (Ukraine's accession): as he said, he was trying to explain it for eight hours and they did not accept it, I would have also got annoyed myself," said Gyongyi, a 71-year-old pensioner.
"Orban brings up all kinds of arguments and they just sweep those aside... it's time for new leaders to be elected (in Brussels) as they are doing a bad job."
(Writing by Krisztina Than; Additional reporting by Boldizsar Gyori in Budapest, Andrew Gray, Michel Rose and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Editing by Frances Kerry)