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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has launched a national consultation in which he links further EU aid to Ukraine to Brussels unblocking funds for his own country, at a moment when Kyiv is struggling to secure future support from its western allies.
One of 11 questions put to voters in a plebiscite that started on Saturday was: “Brussels wants even more money to support Ukraine . . . We should not pay more to support Ukraine until we get the money we are due”. The plebiscite is expected to last until early January.
Other questions focus on restricting EU plans to offer more weapons, money and a membership path to Ukraine, as well as halting Ukrainian grain imports.
Voters can reply in writing or online and the result is non-binding, with Orbán seeking to bolster his political support on campaign issues ahead of EU elections next year.
The consultation also comes ahead of a crucial EU summit in December where heads of states and governments are expected to hammer out a deal over supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion.
Delays in EU funding for the next four years, as well as continued opposition from Republicans in the US congress, have sparked concerns in Kyiv; deputy PM Olha Stefanishyna recently warned that Ukrainian “macro-financial stability” was at risk.
Hungarian voters are also being asked about migration and terrorism, with Budapest accusing the EU of contributing to the financing of Hamas, a charge that Brussels has examined and debunked.
Over his 13 years in power, Orbán has built a self-styled illiberal regime that has gradually unwound democratic checks and balances, pitting his government against Brussels, which has withheld €30bn worth of EU funding from Budapest on rule of law and graft concerns.
Orbán has since shifted his allegiance towards nationalist parties in Europe and has openly advocated for the return of Donald Trump as US president, joining his ultra-conservative events on both sides of the Atlantic.
On government billboards plastered across Hungary, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Alex Soros, the son of US financier George Soros are portrayed with the message: “Let’s not dance to their tune”.
The poster campaign was “completely untrue”, commission spokesman Eric Mamer said on Monday, adding that he had showed the pictures to von der Leyen, who was “completely unfazed”.
A similar government-sponsored billboard campaign ahead of the EU elections in 2019 vote depicted then commission president Jean-Claude Juncker alongside the elder Soros, a Holocaust survivor of Hungarian origin and a longstanding opponent of Orbán. That campaign was perceived as deeply antisemitic as it closely resembled second world war era Nazi posters vilifying the “laughing Jew”. It caused such an uproar that it ultimately led to the exclusion of Fidesz from the European People’s party, the pan-European umbrella group of centre-right parties.
When asked about similarities with the 2019 campaign, Mamer said the EU had “zero tolerance for antisemitism”.
“We know this is not the first time, it’s probably not the last time,” Mamer said in reference to about a dozen other public consultations the Hungarian leader has held so far. “We have crises to manage, we have policies to implement. Hungary is part of the EU, it sits at the table.”
Orbán was re-elected at the weekend as head of the ruling Fidesz party — a position he has held nearly unopposed since the early 1990s. He pledged to “say no to the Brussels model of Europe”, and resist “the migrant invasion [or] the premature EU membership of Ukraine”.
Daniel Hegedüs an analyst at the German Marshall Fund, a US-based think-tank, said the latest campaign signalled that Orbán was ready to take the confrontation with the EU to a next level.
While Hungary and EU officials previously suggested the unblocking of funds was within reach, “now Orbán either gave up on them altogether or no longer considers them a strategic priority”, Hegedüs said. “The European Commission can also hardly release the funds now without a major loss of face.”
Asked about the possible release of the funds, Mamer said: “There are very clear conditions . . . the criteria against which we measure Hungary’s commitments on what needs to be done.”