🌍 The EU considers action against Hungary

Plus: World's largest cruise ship sets sail

Hi Intriguer. 

I loved reading Mexican literature when I served there, and this quote by Octavio Paz (a Nobel laureate) always stuck with me: “Tell me how you die, and I’ll tell you who you are”.

It’s maybe not a line to drop into conversation around the office watercooler, but a lighter interpretation could be that we reveal who we are when the stakes are at their highest.

And that feels apt as we dive into today’s briefing, with Hungary and the EU revealing new traits as they ratchet up their rift.

- Jeremy Dicker, Managing Editor

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TODAY’S NEWS

A new hostage-ceasefire deal? Qatar has put to Hamas a new proposal for a 45-day ceasefire and the release of thousands of Palestinians from Israeli jails, in exchange for the return of 35 of the Hamas hostages. The proposed deal is the product of talks between Qatar, Egypt, the US, and Israel. Hamas earlier reiterated it would only free hostages as part of a permanent ceasefire.

Another Hong Kong national security law. Consultations to draft a local national security law started today (Tuesday) after years of delays. It’ll be in addition to the law Beijing imposed in 2020 after huge protests. Hong Kong’s leader John Lee says the new law will safeguard the city from “undercurrents that try to create troubles”, while critics fear it’ll further curb civil rights.

Saudi Arabia halts oil plans. Saudi Aramco has axed plans to increase its oil output capacity from 12 to 13 million barrels per day by 2027. The move could be a sign that the Saudis are lowering their expectations for future oil demand.

Neuralink claims first human chip implant. Elon Musk says his biotech company has successfully implanted a wireless chip in a human brain, towards the company’s goal of helping tackle complex neurological conditions. Rival companies in Switzerland and elsewhere have already implanted similar devices.

TOP STORY

The EU considers strong-arming Hungary over its opposition to Ukraine aid

But who’s really holding the gun?

The EU has plans to squeeze Hungary’s economy if it blocks a new round of aid to Ukraine later this week, according to documents seen by the Financial Times.

In the event of “unconstructive behaviour” by Hungary, leaked EU documents suggest EU leaders should publicly vow to halt all EU funding to Hungary, as a way to erode its local currency (the forint) and dampen investor confidence. A senior EU official later said the note “does not outline any specific plan”.

Still, in the world of EU procedure, this is explosive stuff.  

What exactly are the EU and Hungry fighting over? 

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has long been wary of Ukraine, citing:

  • The treatment of its Hungarian-speaking minority

  • The threat that cheap Ukrainian imports pose to Hungarian farmers, plus

  • Orbán has also maintained relatively cosy ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key energy provider and fellow nationalist.

So Orbán has (again) pledged to block a €50B multi-year EU aid package this Thursday unless the EU agrees to an annual review of the scheme. This sounds like basic accountability, but in context, it gives Orbán an annual veto to keep extracting more concessions out of the EU. 

It also prevents the EU from providing more consistent support for Ukraine to plan, recover, and rebuild over the longer term.

And this all puts Orbán in direct conflict with the EU, which sees backing Ukraine as an existential priority: just ask the three EU members on Russia’s mainland border (Finland, Estonia, and Latvia) about their own histories of Russian invasion.

Of course, Ukraine is just one part of this rift. Orbán has also bristled at EU criticisms of his democracy; dragged his feet over Sweden’s NATO bid (22 EU members are also in NATO); and railed at an out-of-touch Brussels agenda.

And this is all against a backdrop of distrust dating back as far as the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which dismembered Hungary after its WWI defeat.

So what are the EU’s options? 

  1. Negotiate some more: Orbán is a wily but practical politician, and the EU still has €20B in leverage (funds it’s frozen over rule of law concerns)

  2. Public pressure: This latest Financial Times story has the hallmarks of a controlled leak to let Orbán know the EU isn’t messing around anymore

  3. The nuclear option: The EU could trigger Article 7, suspending Hungary’s voting rights for a “clear risk of a serious breach” of the EU’s principles. Palace whispers suggest this is no longer unthinkable, though these whispers could also be part of option 2 above for now. 

We’ll keep you posted on how Thursday’s vote plays out, but Orbán isn’t exactly the type to capitulate in the face of public pressure.

INTRIGUE’S TAKE

This rift feels historic in the way it risks eroding the EU’s driving principles of cohesion and consensus. But it also feels inevitable for a bloc of 27 members, each zig-zagging their own path forward from election to election.

The other thing that comes to mind here? The more the EU plays hard-ball, the more it risks emboldening Eurosceptics elsewhere, who’ll claim vindication from what they see as the EU steamrolling a country defending its interests.

Ultimately, Orbán has always been a Eurosceptic rather than a leaver; he knows Hungary is better off in than out. But that can change. And in the meantime, he also knows the EU is loath to lose another member, so he’ll keep driving a hard bargain while he can.

Also worth noting:

  • Hungarian ​​Minister for European Union Affairs János Bóka insists Hungary will “participate constructively in the negotiations, but will not give in to blackmail.” 

  • The EU has tested Article 7 before, but the final step requires a unanimous vote. Orbán could previously count on Poland to have his back in such a vote, but Poland now has a more pro-EU government.

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MEANWHILE, ELSEWHERE…

  1. 🇯🇵 Japan: A Japanese rover has resumed operations nine days after its historic landing on the Moon. Only four other powers - the US, USSR, India and China - have successfully landed a spacecraft on the Moon. 

  2. 🇫🇮 Finland: Former prime minister Alexander Stubb and former foreign minister Pekka Haavisto came in first and second in Sunday’s presidential election. The two will now duke it out in a second round of voting on 11 February.

  3. 🇵🇬 Papua New Guinea (PNG): Foreign Minister Justin Tkachenko says his country is in the early stages of security talks with China, weeks after deadly riots rocked the capital. PNG has traditionally seen Australia and the US as its security partners, with China as an economic partner.

  4. 🇧🇷 Brazil: Police are investigating Brazil’s former intelligence chief Alexandre Ramagem as part of a wider probe into a surveillance scheme under former president Jair Bolsonaro. Court records suggest the scheme sought to produce “information for political and media use”. 

  5. 🇸🇸 South Sudan: Over 50 people, including women, children and two UN peacekeepers, were killed in violence along the Sudan-South Sudan border over the weekend. Armed young men from South Sudan's Warrap State carried out the raid over a long-running boundary dispute.

EXTRA INTRIGUE

Here’s what people around the world are tweeting

  • 🇫🇷 #BlocageDeParis (Paris blockade) has been trending across France after farmers blocked highways around Paris in protest.

  • 🇸🇻 Folks in El Salvador are tweeting about ‘El Faro’, a news outlet that says the government tried to hire a cartel to kidnap a gang leader.

  • 🇱🇻 And Tatjana Zdanoka (a member of the European Parliament) is trending in Latvia, after an explosive story outed her as a Russian agent.

PHOTO OF THE DAY

Credits: AP

The world’s biggest cruise ship embarked on its maiden voyage over the weekend. The $2B and 230,000-tonne Icon of the Seas floated out of Miami with 20 decks, 40 restaurants, an orchestra, and enough space for 7,600 guests. It was even christened by Miami-based soccer star, Lionel Messi!

And yes… this all reminds us of the memorable 1994 essay about a Caribbean cruise, by the late American writer David Foster Wallace.

DAILY POLL

Do you think the EU is right to play hardball with Hungary?

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🟨⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️ 💸 Price (11%)

🟩🟩🟩🟩🟩🟩 👍 Quality (73%)

⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️ 🏴‍☠️ Product origin (4%)

⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️ 🚚 Shipping time (0.5%)

⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️ ⌚ Convenience (2%)

⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️ 🌎 Sustainability (5%)

⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️ ✍️ Other (write in!) (4%)

Your two cents:

  • 👍 R.J.T: “Buy once, cry once, they say.”

  • 🏴‍☠️ D.R: “Certain manufacturers are amoral and hence a no-go.”

  • ✍️ M.W.S: “Value (the level of quality for the price).”

  • ✍️ G.K.S: “It’s a witch’s brew of all of the above.”

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