Defence Hungary

Hungary becomes only hold-out on Swedish NATO accession

| 2024-01-29 3 min read

Hungary becomes only hold-out on Swedish NATO accession

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has asked his MPs to proceed with Sweden’s ratification as NATO member “at the first possible opportunity” in a climbdown from the delay tactics seen since the Scandinavian country officially asked to join the defence alliance in May 2022.

Orban earlier pledged that Hungary would not be the last NATO member to ratify Swedish membership of the defence alliance, which would end the Scandinavian country’s long-standing neutral stance. However, the hypothetical scenario of Hungary being the last hold-out became reality on Tuesday, 24 January, when Turkish MPs approved with a landslide vote Sweden’s NATO membership request.

The same day as the vote in Istanbul, Orban tweeted: “Just finished a phone call with (NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg). I reaffirmed that the Hungarian government supports the NATO-membership of Sweden. I also stressed that we will continue to urge the Hungarian National Assembly to vote in favour of Sweden’s accession and conclude the ratification at the first possible opportunity.”

Turkish MPs vote through Swedish application

Turkey had dragged its feet over disputes regarding the presence of Kurdish terrorists in the Scandinavian country, as well as its desire to purchase F-16 fighter planes from the US.

After months of diplomatic bargaining, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a positive assessment of Sweden’s case to the Turkish Parliament towards the end of 2023, and last week’s vote ended 3 months of limbo. 

Shortly after Erdogan signed off on Sweden’s accession to NATO on Thursday, the ruling US administration said it intends to sell the F-16s to Turkey, subject to the approval of Congress. The US State Department, which had reportedly been in weekly contact with the Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, sent the formal notification about the proposed USD 23bn (EUR 21.2bn) sale to Congress on Friday.

Hungary position stumps international community

For his part, Orban has never made any clear demands for Hungary’s delay tactics. Hungarian MPs debated Sweden’s membership of the defence alliance last March, but Orban has refrained from using his parliamentary supermajority to push the issue over the line.

Under Hungarian law, Orban – or any MP – can ask to convene a special parliamentary session, a move that requires the support of only 20% of the House. The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) has already initiated a procedure to put the vote on the House schedule, which would then have to be approved by a majority of MPs. Instead Orban has strung out the case for months, even calling on the Swedish government to visit Hungary for talks, only to have that invitation rejected. 

According to Orban the matter is in the hands of MPs who “don’t much fancy this decision”. However, Orban runs a very tight party line, with little happening without his consent, least of all a decision of this magnitude. 

No vote has yet been scheduled, although according to Orban-friendly daily Magyar Nemzet, the Fidesz caucus will meet on 21 February and the Hungarian Parliament will reconvene 5 days later. 

Orban tried to use delay tactics as leverage – political scientist

According to local observers, there is no guarantee of a swift conclusion to the deadlock. Director of local think-tank Political Capital Peter Kreko tweeted: “It cannot be taken for granted that the Hungarian parliament will just ratify the NATO accession of Sweden automatically, very soon without any delay.

“Orban’s resistance to Swedish membership has thus far been absolutely irrational, making it difficult to predict, based on any rational consideration… Hungary has not articulated any clear demands, therefore their demands cannot be met.

According to Kreko: “Orban is increasingly playing with ‘Putinian’ foreign policy, where you do not really clearly articulate your demands. You just try to be an important stakeholder in every decision.

“He does not want to give any of his votes for free, but inviting the Swedish PM to ‘negotiate’ is also an ego game for Orban. He wants to be taken seriously. This is a self-destructive foreign policy. But it is also destructive to NATO as well because NATO is built on trust. Even if Orban does come on board with Swedish accession, the damage has already been done,” Kreko added.