In December 2021, Poland’s ultraconservative, nationalist government hosted some of the biggest names in European far-right politics, including France’s Marine Le Pen and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. At the close of the Warsaw gathering, the group issued a declaration against “social engineering” aimed at creating “a new European nation” and made promises, largely unfulfilled, to work together in the European parliament.
Only a few months after the Warsaw summit, the governments of Poland and Hungary, who have been ideological soul mates in the EU for years, fell out over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While Warsaw has been one of Kyiv’s staunchest supporters, urging tougher sanctions, Hungary’s leader, Orbán, has described Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, as his “opponent” and blamed the EU’s Russia policy for inflation and soaring energy prices. Despite a few tentative olive branches, Polish-Hungarian relations remain tense.
The rift became most obvious in April when Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s most powerful politician and chair of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), described Orbán’s stance on Ukraine as “very sad” and “disappointing”. In private, Polish diplomats have vented their dismay. “For me, this is the country of 1848-9, the country massacred by Russia,” one senior Polish diplomat said in May, referring to Imperial Austria’s call on the Russian tsar to quash the Hungarian Revolution. “Frankly speaking, I cannot understand the logic [of Hungary’s position],” the diplomat said, adding that the Visegrád Group – the alliance of four central European countries, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – no longer existed.
More recently, an attempt from Warsaw to revive cooperation with Hungary appeared to go nowhere. Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, told a pro-government weekly magazine last month that Poland would like to return to cooperation with the Visegrád Group (V4), in effect re-opening the door to better ties with Hungary. EU officials in Brussels took this as a sign that Poland’s government was disappointed it has so far failed to unlock €35.4bn (about £31bn) in EU Covid recovery funds, despite offering modest concessions in its dispute with Brussels over the rule of law.
Wojciech Przybylski, editor of Visegrád Insight magazine, said Morawiecki was seeking to test Polish public opinion, but facing elections in 2023, could not overlook the pro-Russian leanings of some politicians who went to Warsaw last December, including Orbán. Some Polish political leaders, Przybylski said, would like to “innovate and conspire together in European politics” with Orbán, but they cannot do so because of the unpopularity of the Hungarian leader. “They have to manifestly distance themselves from Viktor Orbán, whose political communication became toxic to the popularity of politicians in Poland,” he said.
Cooperation with Orbán was blocked by Poland’s governing parties because of “the dominant feeling of insecurity in Polish society and the perception of Russia and perception of Ukraine”, he said.
A recent YouGov poll exposed the gulf in public perceptions of the war between the two neighbours. While 65% of Poles support maintaining sanctions against Russia, only 32% of Hungarians back this EU policy. Similarly, three-quarters of Polish citizens blame Russia for the war, compared with only 35% of Hungarians.
“The Russian war is a matter of security and a matter of self identification for Poland, which is not really the case for the Hungarian government,” said Zsuzsanna Végh, an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The Hungarian government still does not really consider Russia a direct security threat. And on this, there is no seeing eye to eye between the two governments.”
Hungary has attempted to mend fences with its neighbours. Following her election in May, Hungary’s new president, Katalin Novák, made her first overseas trip to Warsaw in an attempt to shore up the alliance.
Contrary to claims the V4 is dead, Slovakia last week hosted the presidents of the four countries to discuss regional security and the energy crisis. But in the closing press conference, Slovakia’s president, Zuzana Čaputová, pointed to the inconsistent position of the V4 on military aid to Ukraine. These inconsistencies came to the surface again on 17 October when Hungary abstained on setting up an EU mission to train Ukrainian troops.
The Polish-Hungarian rift is only the latest sign of divergence between the central European quartet, whose politicians are less politically homogenous than in 2015-16 when they largely united against refugee quotas during the migration crisis.
Despite their differences on the war in Ukraine, Poland and Hungary share a common view on the rule of law and the role of the EU institutions. Last month, PiS MEPs joined other nationalist parties in voting against a European parliament resolution that labelled Hungary an “electoral autocracy”. The two sides could yet rediscover an interest in working together, as both risk being denied EU funds over concerns about corruption and a politicised judiciary.
“The ideological proximity” of Poland and Hungary’s ruling parties could give them a common agenda “as they continue their so-called fight against Brussels”, Végh said. But she added: “The conflict over Russia is really putting limits to it and I don’t see that is very easily reconciled and overcome at the moment.”