Hungary Snubs U.S. Senators Pushing for Sweden’s Entry Into NATO

Hungary, the last holdout blocking Sweden’s entry into NATO, thumbed its nose over the weekend at the United States, declining to meet with a bipartisan delegation of senators who had come to press the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban to swiftly approve the Nordic nation’s entry into the military alliance.

The snub, which Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, described on Sunday as “strange and concerning,” represented the latest effort by Mr. Orban, a stalwart champion of national sovereignty, to show he will not submit to outside pressure over NATO’s long-stalled expansion.

Despite having only 10 million people and accounting for only 1 percent of the European Union’s economic output, Hungary under Mr. Orban has made defiance of more powerful countries its guiding philosophy. “Hungary before all else,” Mr. Orban said on Saturday at the end of a state of the nation address in which he said Europe’s policy of supporting Ukraine had “failed spectacularly.”

Legislators from Mr. Orban’s governing Fidesz party and government ministers all declined to meet with the visiting American senators, all of whom are robust supporters of Ukraine.

“I’m disappointed to say that nobody from the government would meet with us while we were here,” Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat and co-chair of the Senate’s NATO Observer Group, said Sunday at a news conference.

Speaking a day earlier in Budapest, Hungary’s capital, Mr. Orban restated his previous commitment — so far reneged on — to let Sweden into the alliance as soon as possible. “We are on course to ratify Sweden’s accession to NATO at the beginning of Parliament’s spring session,” he said.

Mr. Orban, whose party has a large majority in Parliament and controls when it meets and how it votes, gave no date, but legislators are expected to reconvene at the end of the month after a winter break. Fidesz legislators boycotted a session of Parliament called earlier this month by the opposition to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership.

After more than 18 months of foot-dragging, Hungary has come under intense pressure from the United States and other members of the 31-nation alliance to accept Sweden, whose military is far bigger and more sophisticated than that of Hungary.

In a sign of mounting frustration, the visiting senators, including Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, said they would introduce a resolution in the Senate urging Hungary to stop stalling and expressing concern about democratic backsliding under Mr. Orban, who has presided over an increasingly authoritarian system.

Hungary became the final obstacle to Sweden’s admission after Turkey’s Parliament voted last month to approve its membership.

The visiting Americans voiced optimism that Mr. Orban would soon relent on admitting Sweden, just as he did last month, after months of obstruction, in approving a European Union aid package to Ukraine worth $54 billion. “We are hopeful and optimistic that it will happen on the 26th when Parliament meets,” Ms. Shaheen said

Mr. Tillis urged Hungary, which has opposed sending weapons to Ukraine and maintains cordial relations with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, to understand that “Putin’s actions are the reason we are expanding NATO.” Every member of the alliance, he said, “should understand that the response to Vladimir Putin’s hostility should be a stronger NATO, and there is no better way to do that than to admit Sweden.”

Hungary’s inaction has caused widespread bewilderment, particularly in Sweden, which has provided Mr. Orban’s country with Swedish-made warplanes that form the backbone of its air force. Pro-government news media outlets in Hungary have suggested that Mr. Orban was holding out to get a better deal on Swedish-made Gripen fighters. But diplomats see that as a story largely ginned up to explain otherwise inexplicable delays that have severely damaged Hungary’s reputation as a reliable ally and secured it no clear benefits in return.

This month the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, called Mr. Orban “the least reliable member of NATO” and raised the possibility of imposing sanctions on Hungary for blocking the expansion.

Hungary approved the entry of Finland into NATO last March, only a few months after other nations did, but has stalled on Sweden since the summer of 2022. It has offered often shifting explanations, citing scheduling hiccups, criticism in Sweden of Hungary’s violation of democratic norms, and teaching material used in Swedish schools that Fidesz officials viewed as disrespectful to Hungary. Its most recent reason is that the Swedish prime minister has yet to visit Budapest to negotiate with Mr. Orban.

The United States ambassador to Hungary, David Pressman, said that the senators’ visit “underscores the urgency of the moment” and that he was hopeful that Hungary would follow all other members of NATO in accepting Sweden.

But in an interview, Mr. Pressman voiced regret that the Hungarian government, “as evidenced by the bipartisan congressional delegation that was here today, has chosen to engage with U.S. officials in a way that is unique amongst our allies.”

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