• Hungary, the rogue child of the European Union, is ready to break more of the bloc’s rules. The Minister of Agriculture, István Nagy, has vowed to fight against the import of cheap Ukrainian grain to his country, even if this risks another infringement procedure with the EU.

    In a radio interview, he claimed that if the EU does not extend the ban on grain imports from its war-ravaged eastern neighbour, Hungary will continue this prohibition unilaterally on four of the 24 listed goods. Nagy admitted this would “obviously” lead to a fight with Brussels. In that case, Budapest would not relent, but would go further, and introduce the ban on all products concerned.

    Threats from the Hungarian government often sound empty, but it may be different this time. Budapest has already started negotiating with Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania on the issue of cheap Ukrainian imports, which is making central Europe a force to be reckoned with.

    It’s a few minutes after noon on the beach at Hungary’s holiday destination Lake Balaton and some families are already packing their stuff to return to their small rented houses. Although there are many food stalls and restaurants, they opt for a home-cooked lunch to save money.

    The beach – lined with towels and colourful inflatable unicorns in the grass – becomes deserted for a few hours. The noise of children playing, adults gossiping under the willow trees and waves hitting the rocks disappears. When families return in the afternoon, many walk with cooler bags in hand, bringing sandwiches and cans of beer.

    “We are a family of four. Even with a family discount, the daily entrance fee to the official beach is eight euros. One lángos (deep-fried dough with cheese and sour cream) costs five euros. I would probably have to spend 50 euros there every day,” explains a beachgoing dad who is staying at the free beach of Siófok, a bit further away from town.

    In a country where the average salary is 972 euro per month and inflation in June was still above 20 per cent, that is a lot of money.

    “For the same price, I can go and swim in the sea,” explains 39-year-old Anna on why she chose Croatia this summer. Such costs leave the future uncertain for Lake Balaton.

    When NATO leaders gathered for their “family photo” at the recent summit in Vilnius, the cameras captured a surprising moment. Walking onto the stage, United States president Joe Biden shook hands with just one leader: Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary.

    Given the not-so-amicable relationship between the two countries, most commentators speculated that the gesture was to thank Hungary for its willingness to finally support Sweden’s NATO accession.

    However, as the summit ended, it became clear that the handshake was not enough to change Budapest’s position. As senior government officials admit Hungary is waiting for Turkey to lift its veto, there is still no date set for the final vote in Parliament, which would be necessary to fulfil Orbán’s promise.

    Orbán also made it clear in an interview his views on Washington were unaltered: that if America wanted peace, it could happen by the next morning. But that the conflict in Ukraine would drag on because people in the West wanted the war to continue.

    Nanterre and Marseille, France on 28 June – burning cars and the looting of shops. Kraków, Poland on 28 June – women walking through the sunshine in peace. These were scenes from a Twitter video that Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki shared during the French unrest.

    He was not the only populist leader capitalising on the events. In a Facebook post, Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó, who is a hardliner against migration like his Polish counterpart, wrote: “The French riots prove that it is impossible to integrate violent masses of illegal immigrants from other cultures.”

    As well as scoring points at home, the Polish and Hungarian statements have a special message for the European Union. As the EU continues to debate its new migration pact, including voluntary relocation and solidarity, both central European countries made it clear they are ready to fight against the proposal which they consider is “forced upon them”.

    They have both used their power of veto as blackmail before, so these might be more than empty words.

    “There is a car chase in Budapest. The administration considers those who dare to get into cars as criminals.”

    – Gergely Gulyás, Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff

    ‘Car chase’ could easily be the title of a movie in Hungary, with Gergely Karácsony, Budapest’s liberal mayor, as the lead.

    To tell the truth, the Hungarian capital has never been friendly to cyclists. Cars are status symbols here, and the city has always favoured motorists. So, when Karácsony was elected in 2019, his actions to transform the city faced controversy.

    But the fiercest attacks did not come from the inhabitants, but from the right-wing populist government, in an attempt to woo voters and make the opposition mayor’s life difficult. When Karácsony cycled to work, politicians attacked him for not driving. When he opened a bike lane or wanted to reform parking, he was called an “enemy of cars” – along with every cyclist in the city.

    Just like that, Budapest has become an example of how politics can make enemies of cyclists – while the inhabitants suffer the consequences.

    Suffering from low growth and battling the highest inflation in the European Union, Hungary is desperately in need of EU funds. 

    However, this cash has been suspended due to Brussels’ concerns over Hungary’s record on tackling corruption and maintaining the rule of law. So, when the Hungarian parliament adopted judicial reforms that entered into force on 1 June, there was a palpable sigh of relief.

    No wonder: this package of new policies was a prerequisite for Budapest’s claim to €13.2 billion of the locked cohesion money.

    Political pressure on the independence of the judiciary in Hungary has long been a domestic and international concern. A senior Budapest judge complained he and his colleagues “have been witnessing external and internal influence attempts” for years. The rule of law report of the European Commission also highlighted problems, including challenges faced by the National Judicial Council (a self-governing body of judges), rules on electing the President of the Supreme Court, and the possibility of favouritism in judicial appointments, promotions, case allocation and bonuses.

    For some time, it seemed not even the Commission was paying enough attention. When the EU executive launched its budget conditionality procedure against Hungary for violations of the principles of the rule of law, they did not raise the issue of judicial independence. Only after pressure from the European Parliament, did they make this issue one of the conditions for Hungary’s access to €22 billion from the EU’s cohesion funds and to €5.8 billion from the recovery fund.

    Hungary had no other choice but to address the concerns, and chose money over ruling the courts.

    However, some experts and NGOs warn the Commission not to oversell these results. The judicial reforms fail to tackle the most important issues of which the Hungarian government is accused: corruption, conflict of interest and rigged public procurements. With that unchanged, the very nature of the Orbán government will remain intact, and the justice reform may quickly turn out to be just a “fig leaf” to hide the real problems with the rule of law.

    Last summer, 30,000 children attended the UEFA Nations League clash between Hungary and England at Puskás Arena in Budapest. Though meant to be a closed-door event as punishment to Hungary for racist chants from its supporters, UEFA allowed in children under 14 – many of whom booed the English team for taking the knee.

    Hungarians view this anti-racism gesture as controversial. Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán even called pressuring athletes to take the knee a ‘provocation’.

    But a few months later Orbán angered Romania and Ukraine by wearing a football scarf to a Hungary-Greece game, printed with a map of a ‘Greater Hungary’, including territory its Empire conceded after World War I. The PM defended his actions by saying football was not about politics.

    Except of course when Hungary is provoked.

    This year, Vodafone sold its Hungarian division to local peer 4iG and the Hungarian state for 1.8 billion euros, in what was meant to be a debt-fuelled acquisition. Press reports confirmed that 4iG received a loan of 750 million euros, and it seems many of the lending banks supplying this cash were Chinese.

    In 2010, PM Viktor Orbán announced a policy of ‘Eastern Opening’, indicating an overture to attracting Asian economic interest. Since then, many projects have included Chinese money, such as the Budapest-Belgrade railway and a battery factory. There were even plans to build a campus of Shanghai’s Fudan University in Budapest.

    But while the Hungarian government continues to seek out ties with China, critics fear this may imply economic and political influence for Beijing – not only in Hungary but also in the European Union.

    What can a journalist do when a prime minister hasn’t given an interview to the independent press in 13 years? Approach him in front of a church. And what does a prime minister say when he sees such a reporter moving up to him?

    “Man, don’t you see I’m coming from church?”

    This was the answer by Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán to a well-known journalist, which became an instant meme, mocking everything from corruption to press freedom.

    Approaching someone after mass may seem rude, but Hungarian journalists have no other option. Being excluded from press conferences and not receiving replies is everyday reality for reporters who are not aligned with the ruling party, Fidesz. Some have been targeted with the surveillance software Pegasus.

    As to why this is necessary, the political director of the prime minister once argued: the one who controls the media is the one who controls the country. But there is one thing they cannot control: jokes.

    How many years does it take to repeal a law that forces NGOs to register as foreign agents? In Hungary: four years and a court ruling.

    In 2017, the Hungarian Parliament passed a bill that obliged organisations receiving at least 7.2 million HUF (18,500 EUR) annually from abroad to register with the courts or face a fine.

    Civil society protests went unheard, but not by the European Union. Following a ruling by the European Court of Justice and pressure from the European Commission, the law was revoked in 2021. No NGO has ever been fined. But Georgia, which followed in Hungary’s footsteps with a similarly controversial bill, lacks the EU’s legal umbrella. The Hungarian case proves the rule of law can be upheld in the EU, even if one country does not like the decision.