(Bloomberg) -- The European Union fears Boris Johnson is plotting to persuade Hungary to veto a Brexit delay, in a move that would dramatically raise the risk that Britain will fall out of the European Union without a deal.
Prime Minister Johnson said last week he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than comply with a vote in Parliament forcing him to ask the EU to postpone Brexit beyond Oct. 31.
But officials at the EU -- which is broadly in favor of an extension if it’s the only way to prevent a no-deal Brexit -- privately voiced fears that one of their own leaders could help Johnson out. If a no-deal divorce is to be avoided, all remaining 27 member states would need to agree with Britain to extend the Brexit negotiating period at an October summit in Brussels.
EU officials privately acknowledge they could do little to stop a rebel leader wielding their veto. They worry that Johnson will try to convince Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has had his own clashes with Brussels over migration and steps to restrict democracy, to help him out. They think the U.K. sees Orban as an ally who will enjoy the opportunity to stand up against the European establishment.
Depart or Delay
Hungary is unlikely to cast the decisive vote if there’s a request to postpone the Brexit deadline, especially as other EU members may be considering rejecting a new delay, according to Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto.
“If there is such a request we’ll make our own decision,” Szijjarto said in an interview in Budapest on Thursday. “A few large western European member states really want to put an end to this and want it decided one way or another, so probably it won’t be our decision that will be key on this issue.”
Johnson is in a battle with members of Parliament in London over his plan to take the U.K. out of the EU at any price -- with or without an agreement -- by the end of October.
He has suffered a succession of setbacks to his Brexit strategy. This month, Parliament voted against his wishes and passed a law requiring him to seek a delay to Brexit rather than crash the country out of the bloc with no deal on Oct. 31 if the two sides don’t strike an agreement before then.
No More Delays
Britain was due to leave the EU on March 29 but former Prime Minister Theresa May could not get the deal she negotiated through a skeptical Parliament in London. When she resigned and Johnson took over in July, he promised there would be no more delays to Brexit and stepped up preparations to ensure the U.K. will be ready to leave without a deal.
U.K. Warns of Protests, Chaotic Border Scenes in No-Deal Brexit
Although several European governments, notably the French, have questioned the wisdom of permitting Brexit to be delayed for a third time, the bloc is determined to avoid being blamed for a no-deal departure, which they think would be catastrophic. That’s why leaders will probably agree to another postponement even if they don’t want one, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the subject is sensitive.
Ultimately, European diplomats predict Orban would reject Johnson’s overtures and fall into line with the rest of the EU over any extension request. Hungary receives large amounts of EU funding every year and they don’t think Orban will want to risk that, or co-operation on joint projects, for Brexit, even if he rattles a few cages first.
Orban’s foreign minister appeared ready to do just that, heaping praise on Johnson, saying he was the one politician in Britain trying to “fulfill the will of the people.” Szijjarto called on the EU to help Johnson get the job done in a way that causes the least damage to ties with Britain.
The minister warned against underestimating Johnson’s determination to make good on his Brexit pledge. “I think he’s much tougher than many believe,” Szijjarto said.
(Updates with Hungarian foreign minister comment in last two paragraphs.)
--With assistance from Tim Ross and Zoltan Simon.
To contact the reporters on this story: Ian Wishart in Brussels at firstname.lastname@example.org;Marton Eder in Budapest at email@example.com;Zoltan Simon in Budapest at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at email@example.com, Tim Ross, Thomas Penny
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