Hungary and Poland have come to each other's defense on and off since the Middle Ages. And they are doing so now as the European Union increases pressure on the two countries to tamp down what Brussels views as their attacks on democracy.
The power of their alliance was evident during a meeting Thursday in Brussels between European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. The two were trying to resolve concerns the EU has about the independence of Poland's courts after the government dramatically increased its control of the judiciary. That action led the European Commission last December to trigger an unprecedented Article 7 proceeding against Warsaw. Nicknamed the "nuclear option," it could ultimately lead to Poland losing EU voting rights if it fails to comply with EU demands by March 20.
But in his meeting with Juncker, Morawiecki pushed back. He handed the commission leader a 96-page document, which warned that EU attempts to pressure Warsaw to dial back its reforms could backfire and "lead to the growth of populist forces, seeking to dismantle or weaken" the European Union.
Snubbing Brussels might seem a dangerous move for Poland, considering the growing chorus of EU officials calling for punishing member states' intransigence by limiting their funding. Poland is the biggest beneficiary of EU money among the bloc's 28 member states. But with Hungary on its side, there's only so much EU officials can do, because any punitive actions Brussels wants to take against one bloc member — including Article 7 — generally require unanimous backing by the rest.
Hungarian government spokesman Zoltán Kovács recently told NPR that his prime minister — Viktor Orbán — will veto any attempt by Brussels to impose sanctions against Warsaw, a position backed on Feb. 20 by the Hungarian Parliament.
"Yes, indeed we see that Poland is being picked upon like Hungary was, you know, pointed out or sorted out back seven, eight years ago for no reason," Kovács said, referring to long-running EU criticism and pressure over what is widely seen as a Hungarian clampdown on democratic institutions.
Orbán and his Polish counterpart are also taking very public steps to let Brussels know that they have each other's back.
It started on Jan. 3 when the then newly appointed Morawiecki chose Budapest for his first international visit as Poland's prime minister. He had been expected to first go to Brussels to try to smooth things over with the European Commission.
Tough timing for EU
Instead, Morawiecki and Orbán held a press conference in Budapest, during which they criticized Brussels over its refugee policy and stressed the importance of Polish-Hungarian relations. The countries' "friendship will continue to be a cornerstone of Hungary's Europe policy in the future," Orbán said. Morawiecki added the two leaders were on the same page when it comes to impending negotiations on the EU's next seven-year budget. "Similarly minded countries like ours can together influence Europe's future in a very positive way," he said.
For Brussels, the alliance couldn't come at a worse time. EU officials — led by France and Germany — are seeking to better integrate the bloc economically and politically. They want to develop a viable refugee policy and reach a consensus on the next long-term EU budget.
But in Budapest, many Hungarians NPR interviewed were happy about Hungary and Poland making a public show of seeking closer ties. The proponents include Akos Szepessy, who owns the Gdansk Bookstore Café, a pub named for the Polish port city on the Baltic.
He says his largely Hungarian clientele is fascinated by all things Polish, including a drink he serves made up of chilled vodka and raspberry syrup that when poured together into the shot glass, form the red and white colors of the Polish flag.
Even so, Szepessy believes the Poles have been better allies to Hungary than the other way around. "The phrase 'Polish and Hungarians are great friends' is reflected and lived through more on the Polish side, and less manifested in Hungary," he said.
Tomás Valásek, director of the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels, said that has a lot to do with the current conflict between Warsaw and Brussels. "At this point Poland would appear to need Hungary more than the other way around," he said. "It's ironic and counterintuitive. Poland is of course a much bigger country which carries a lot more influence, or used to carry a lot more influence, in Brussels and around the globe than Hungary ever has."
But Poland is eager to learn from the Hungarian prime minister, who has proven rather adept at enforcing his controversial domestic political agenda despite European concerns about it stifling Hungarian democracy, Valasek added. "Orban has been good at cultivating his allies in the center-right political family, the so-called European People's Party" in the European parliament, he explained. "They have given him cover and backing in crucial votes in parliament and have kept him from being isolated and finding himself in a sort of trouble that Warsaw has found [itself] in."
A Kremlin divide
Yet with nationalism sweeping the bloc — most recently in Italy, where voters put anti-immigrant and euroskeptic parties in power in early March — Brussels' patience is growing short. Plus there are limits to the Hungarian-Polish alliance because of a much larger and stronger entity to the east: Russia
Orbán has sought to improve ties to the Kremlin, mainly for economic reasons, and vocally supports lifting of international economic sanctions against Moscow that have cost his country billions in export revenue, even though the Hungarian leader has repeatedly voted for them.
Warsaw, on the other hand, views Russia as a top security threat and wants Europe to cut its economic dependence on the country, including its use of Russian natural gas.
"It is certainly a limiting factor" to the Polish-Hungarian alliance, said Botond Feledy, a senior fellow at the Center for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy in Budapest. "Poland is very much looking for allies on this question."
Feledy said that's something Orbán is not willing to be.