It’s time to make sense of all the contradictory pieces of information that have reached the public in the last couple of days concerning the European Union’s attitude toward the Russian-Hungarian agreement on the Paks II nuclear power plant. The central question was whether the Orbán government notified Brussels, as it was obliged to, about the details of the agreement.
Energiaklub, a non-profit organization that deals with questions of energy and the environment, wrote a letter to the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Energy on February 17 asking for “access to the documentation related to the notification, under the Euratom Treaty, of the PAKS nuclear power in Hungary.” The answer was: “This investment project has not yet been notified to the Commission under Article 41 of the Euratom Treaty, and therefore at the moment no documents can be found in the Commission’s possession.” Critics of Viktor Orbán were only too happy to find that his administration seemed once again to have been caught lying. Soon enough, however, the relevant documentation was made public on the website of the prime minister’s office.
But before I talk about these newly released documents, which give us only a little more knowledge of the whole Paks affair than we had before, I would like to jot down a few dates by way of a road map.
I began collecting material on Paks and nuclear energy on October 18, 2013 when Viktor Orbán, then in India, boasted that Hungary would have extremely low energy prices in the not too distant future. He brought this up as an economic enticement for Indian investors. He also emphasized his commitment to nuclear energy.
Then for almost two months we heard nothing about nuclear energy. Finally János Lázár broached the subject and talked about advanced negotiations with Russia for Rosatom to construct two new reactors in Paks. What we didn’t know was that on December 10, 2013 János Lázár wrote a letter to Günther Oettinger, commissioner for energy. The released document is a cover letter to “the Draft International Agreement with the Russian Federation.” The letter also indicates that the Commission had been notified earlier, at its November 26, 2013 meeting, that “Hungary intends to enter into an international agreement with the government of the Russian Federation on the cooperation in peaceful use of nuclear energy.” Attached was the draft agreement “in accordance with Article 103 of the European Treaty.” The letter also reveals that talks between Brussels and Budapest about Hungary’s intention to sign such a treaty had taken place even before that date because Lázár assured the commissioner that they took “into consideration the comments obtained from the Commission.” The conversation between the commissioner and the Hungarian government is described as “open and constructive.” The confusion described above was most likely due to Energiaklub’s reference to Article 41 as opposed to relevant Article 103 of the Euratom Treaty.
A month later, on January 13, Viktor Orbán traveled to Moscow where Mrs. László Németh, minister of national development, on behalf of the Hungarian government, signed a document about which we still know very little. A couple of days later curious Hungarian journalists inquired from Günther Oettinger’s office what the European Commission thinks of the Russian-Hungarian agreement. They were told on January 15 that the Commission had not passed judgment on whether the lack of competitive bidding was an obstacle to the European Union’s blessing for the deal. However, they were told by the spokesman for Oettinger’s office that such a probe will take place some time in the future.
A good two weeks after his trip to Moscow, Orbán decided to write a letter to José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, in which he informed Barroso about “the recent developments with regards to nuclear energy cooperation between Hungary and the Russian Federation.” From the letter it becomes clear that there had been a response from Brussels to János Lázár’s December 10 cover letter attached to the copy of the draft treaty. According to Orbán, “the Commission raised no objection to the draft agreement” and therefore “my government signed the intergovernmental agreement on January 14, 2014.”
Orbán in this letter tried to downplay the fact that the job of building the nuclear power plant was given without any competitive bidding process. He added that “Rosatom, the Russian nuclear state authority, will be in charge of the implementation of the design and construction work. However, whenever any such work or services cannot be provided in-house, the Russian party will undertake an open and non-discriminatory tendering process.”
And finally, Orbán tried to reassure Barroso that the Russian-Hungarian deal actually serves European interests. “We believe that the long-term cooperation of Hungary with the Russian Federation in the field of nuclear power will contribute to strengthening the energy security of the EU as a whole.” It was at about this time that John Lukács, the conservative Hungarian-American historian who had fairly close ties with Viktor Orbán earlier, wrote him an open letter in which he warned about the deadly embrace of Putin’s Russia. I translated Lukács’s letter and Orbán’s rather impertinent reply.
By February 7 the Hungarian parliament, after five hours of debate, voted for a treaty about which the members knew practically nothing, even as opposition to the Russian-Hungarian deal was growing in the country. Most Hungarians didn’t want an extension to Paks, and they especially didn’t want to have the Russians building it. Foreign observers also envisaged a “Comecon reborn,” which looked quite possible after “realigning Ukraine as a satellite state under Vladimir Putin.” Nick Butler of the Financial Times emphasized Hungary’s “acceptance of Russian technology in its nuclear sector” and added that this huge investment will be financed by a Russian loan. He noted a reassertion of Russian power across the region and wrote that “the advance is not military but economic with energy issues to the fore.”
Barroso’s answer came on February 7. He referred to the progress made toward a common European energy policy. He attributed this success to the Commission’s “respect for Member States’ basic choices concerning their energy mix.” He added, however: “Member States’ commitment to comply fully with the rules of the Treaties and secondary legislation, in particular those governing the internal energy market, and to act in a spirit of coordination and full transparency, remains vital.” After the Commission examined the draft agreement it “raised no objections of principle to the agreement from the perspective of article 103.” But it seems that Orbán is still not entirely in the clear because “there are … other aspects of EU law to be observed, such as the rules on public procurement and state aid.”
Many people are convinced that the hidden state subsidies and the lack of public procurement are insuperable obstacles. Although who knows. Viktor Orbán always finds ways to come out on top.