Against the backdrop of massive farmers’ protests in Brussels, a special EU summit approved a €50 billion aid package for Ukraine. The deal was possible after the last hold-out, Hungary, was pressured into submission.
On Thursday, the normally quiet Belgian capital woke up to traffic jams, the sound of tractor horns and the smell of burning tires.
The European quarter, normally a place populated by politicians, officials, lobbyists and journalists was suddenly a cauldron, as one observer put it.
Thousands of farmers rode their tractors into town to denounce what they believe is a deeply unfair and incoherent agricultural policy.
Official Brussels said: “I hear you.”
Proposals to limit farm imports from Ukraine and loosen environmental regulations on fallow lands were some of the measures the EU Commission announced considering the protests.
“The Commission believes that by taking this stabilizing action, we can help alleviate the pressure that we know our farmers are feeling in order to ensure that they can stay economically viable during these times of high uncertainty,” said Maroš Šefčovič, European Commission Vice-President.
The timing of the protests in Brussels was no coincidence.
The same day, EU leaders came together for a special summit that approved a €50-billion aid package to Ukraine.
The deal was possible after Hungary, the last holdout, caved.
Until the morning of the summit day, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had been single-handedly blocking the release of fresh money for Ukraine.
What changed his mind, is not entirely clear and some summit participants avoided any public show of triumphalism.
“We had intensive, trusting discussions (with Hungary) with great clarity about the situation,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
“But you’ll understand that, as much as I understand your interest, I’m not going to give you any insights through the keyhole.”
Orbán has a track record of alienating his partners in the EU and in NATO, as he is still holding up Sweden from joining the alliance.
What is Orban’s overall strategy? Are Hungary’s interests so different from the rest of the EU?
Dr. Frank Furedi, executive director of the Hungarian think tank MCC in Brussels, described Orbán in an interview with Euronews as “a fairly pragmatic politician”.
“As long as there is, a possibility of revisiting this issue later on, he’s happy, to go along with the decision. It’s not necessarily what he wanted, but end of the day, given the balance of forces and the calculations that he made, he was prepared to go along with it.”
“The way that I look at it is that Viktor Orbán may be isolated at meetings of the European Council, but in terms of the overall position that he has within Europe, I have the impression that a lot of people look to him because he speaks, and says things that other people are perhaps a little bit intimidated to express.
“A lot of people, for example, other politicians and prime ministers are also wary of the way that the war is being conducted and and the EU’s support for it. But Orban is one of the few people that is prepared to stand up and say these things,” he added.
Hungary is scheduled to take over the six-months rotating presidency of the Council of the EU in July this year, just a few weeks after the EU parliamentary elections in which right-wing populists and far-right factions are expected to perform well.
According to Furedi, the Hungarian presidency “will surprise a lot of people.”
“They expect the Hungarian prime minister to somehow try all kinds of tricks. They forget the fact that Orban has been around for a very long time. He knows the ropes. He’s very experienced. He’s very pragmatic, he is a dealmaker.
“And I think you can expect an effective leadership from Hungary,” he said.