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The EU’s notorious troublemaker, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, is in Moscow to meet Russia’s President Vladimir Putin today, after a flurry of diplomatic contacts by EU and Nato allies seeking to keep him in line. We’ll look at the stakes and the sinuous history of Budapest seeking to stay friends with Moscow while not completely alienating Brussels.
Meanwhile, in Kyiv, EU commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis went to Ukraine yesterday to show support (and remind everyone that €1.2bn are coming soon, or at least, half of that sum) — while the prime minister of the Netherlands is also headed to Ukraine after a stop in neighbouring Moldova.
In Portugal, the centre-left held up surprisingly well in Sunday’s election, allowing Prime Minister António Costa to rule alone, without the disruptive far-left coalition partner that triggered the election in the first place. However, the far-right Chega party also scored better than expected, coming in third.
And in Swiss-EU news, I’ll take you through the latest twist — why the German Bundesländer are throwing a spanner in the EU’s decision last year to no longer recognise Swiss market authorisation for medical devices.
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Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban is set to meet Vladimir Putin, Russian president, in Moscow today, amid concerns about his ambivalent stance in the Ukraine crisis, writes Marton Dunai in Budapest.
Budapest has stressed business development and stayed clear of raising any human rights issues in Russia — at the same time as Orban has received an increasing amount of heat from western partners.
“Obviously, we cannot avoid talking about the security situation in Europe,” Orban said over the weekend. “We are interested in peace. Of course, Hungary is a member of Nato . . . as I am going to Moscow I will consult with both Nato and the (EU), as well as the key politicians who have the presidency of the Union.”
Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg tweeted yesterday that he had a “good call” with Orban ahead of his trip to Moscow, urging Russia to de-escalate the situation and “choose a peaceful path”.
“In times of peace [and] crisis, we are united in Nato,” Stoltenberg tweeted.
Ben Wallace, the UK’s defence minister, who visited Budapest yesterday, also expressed support for Orban’s trip and said he welcomed any efforts aimed at de-escalating the conflict and standing up for the sovereignty of Ukraine.
But the constructive tone masks deeper disagreements with Hungary over how to react to Russia’s aggressive stance, given that Orban’s record on standing up for Ukraine is patchy, at best.
After the 2014 invasion of Crimea, Orban argued the west was shooting itself in the foot by imposing economic sanctions on Russia — although he voted in favour of the EU sanctions later on.
Orban had signed a finance-and-build agreement with Russia’s nuclear monopoly Rosatom for the expansion of Hungary’s main electricity producer, the Paks nuclear power plant, weeks before the invasion.
In 2017, when Ukraine passed a law restricting the use of minority languages in its schools and later further passages such as restrictions on holding public office for holders of foreign passports — such as thousands of ethnic Hungarians in western Ukraine — Budapest blocked Ukraine’s European Union and Nato membership talks.
Those moves come under a stark new light as Nato sends reinforcements to Ukraine and beefs up its presence along its eastern flanks, increasing troops and equipment levels.
Hungary’s foreign minister said Budapest would not send help to Ukraine under the circumstances. And despite early news of Nato deploying troops in Hungary as part of the build-up, the government signalled at the weekend that it would not take in further troops.
Speaking alongside Wallace yesterday, Hungary’s defence minister Tibor Benko repeated his government’s stance that right now, there was no need for a Nato deployment. Budapest was not against Nato deploying troops in allied countries near Ukraine, Benko said, but he stressed that Hungary was able to “perform this task on its own”.
Hungary’s opposition, meanwhile, decried the timing of Orban’s visit and said it was “simply treasonous to go to Moscow” in the current circumstances.
Chart du jour: Stubborn coal
Fossil fuels still accounted for 37 per cent of the bloc’s electricity production in 2021 and new renewable power plants in the EU mainly replaced expensive gas power rather than more polluting coal, according to analysis by Ember, a London-based energy think-tank. (More here)
Exceptional no more
To the dismay of mainstream politicians, Chega, a far-right populist party founded less than three years ago, emerged as the third-largest political force in Portugal’s parliamentary election on Sunday, writes Peter Wise in Lisbon.
If the contest between the two biggest parties — the victorious Socialists (PS) of Prime Minister António Costa and the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD) — had turned out differently, André Ventura, Chega’s vociferous leader, would now be demanding a role in government.
However, Costa’s unexpected success in winning an absolute majority has ruled out the possibility of a right-of-centre majority supporting a coalition government in which Ventura had implausibly said he would seek a ministerial post.
The rapid rise of Chega, whose name translates as “enough” and initially came with an exclamation mark, has unsettled Portugal’s traditional parties. Many had hoped the country would be immune to nationalist populism after enduring almost half a century of a rightwing dictatorship lasting into the 1970s.
But Ventura, 39, a former TV football pundit and lawyer who began his political career as a local councillor for the PSD has tapped into public grievances over corruption, low pensions and similar issues. In an emotional victory speech in the early hours of Monday, he made clear the parliamentary style his new group of 12 MPs plans to adopt.
“What a punch we’ve delivered tonight,” he said. “There’ll be no more floppy opposition to Costa and the PS from now on.” Ventura, elected in 2019, had previously been Chega’s only MP and remains its only public face.
The party is affiliated with Identity and Democracy, a far-right group in the European parliament, and is supported by Santiago Abascal, leader of Spain’s hard-right Vox party, and Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s Rassemblement National, among other rightwing populist figures,
Ventura, who has been fined for stigmatising Portugal’s small Roma community, upholds policies including life imprisonment for violent crimes, chemical castration for paedophiles, a single income tax rate and cutting the number of political posts by half.
His party is unlikely to have much success in parliament with these issues, but is expected to make a lot of noise about them.
Made in Switzerland
When weighing up EU solidarity against the needs of local hospitals, Germany’s devolved health authorities are tilting towards the latter.
Last month, health authorities in Germany’s 16 states replied favourably to a request from the country’s medical technology suppliers to continue to import devices authorised on the Swiss market.
These include high-tech surgical devices and oxygen supply, storage and distribution systems for hospitals — particularly sought after in the pandemic. Germany is the largest market for Switzerland’s medtech sector, according to trade group MedTech Europe, which said Germany’s hospitals had been complaining about difficulties not just in purchasing new devices, but also in servicing existing machines and getting new supplies for them.
“The [European Commission’s] conscious decision to leverage the medtech sector in the midst of pandemic was unfortunate,” said Jesús Rueda Rodríguez, director for international affairs with MedTech Europe.
Back in May 2021, the commission pulled the plug on automatic recognition of medical devices that were authorised on the Swiss market, as a consequence of the complete breakdown in EU-Swiss talks.
The commission recently said it has asked Berlin for more information and continues to stand by its decision. “That interpretation is not in line with the commission’s position,” said commission spokesperson Stefan De Keersmaecker.
The federal health ministry in Berlin meanwhile is pointing to state authorities having the power to implement EU legislation in this case and says that if all dialogue fails, affected stakeholders and the commission can take legal action.
What to watch today
Hungary’s PM Viktor Orban meets Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Moscow
Mark Rutte, PM of Netherlands, visits Moldova and Ukraine
EU industry ministers meet for an informal council in Lens, France
We thought the supply chain disruptions would be temporary . . . they are taking longer to resolve than we expected
Supply crunch: The crunch in global supply chains will continue longer than thought and may persistently marginalise developing countries, said Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, head of the World Trade Organization.
Taxonomy tensions: Sweden and the Netherlands have joined the ranks of countries arguing against the inclusion of fossil gas in the EU’s taxonomy, due to be published tomorrow. Along with Austria and Denmark, the pair have signed a position paper, seen by Europe Express, arguing only for the inclusion of gas as a green energy if it emits below a 100g of CO2 per kilowatt threshold. But both countries do not say they will reject the taxonomy outright — given their previous support for nuclear power. According to sources, the commission is unlikely to make major changes, with tweaks potentially making it easier, rather than harder, to classify gas as green.
Boris Johnson troubles: Not only has “partygate” proven “failures of leadership and judgment”, but the UK’s government is also under fire for failing to deliver on a promise to match billions of pounds worth of EU structural funding for UK nations and regions after Brexit.
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