Last night an article appeared in The Financial Times, written by Andrew Byrne in Budapest and Christian Oliver in Brussels. The reporters had heard earlier that the European Atomic Energy Community or Euratom, which must approve all nuclear supply contracts signed by EU member states, had serious reservations about the contract signed by Russia and Hungary and would most likely withhold approval of the plant’s fuel supply. By yesterday they learned that Euratom had definitely “refused to approve Hungary’s plans to import nuclear fuel exclusively from Russia.” Hungary appealed the decision without success and, according to “three people close to the talks, the European Commission has now thrown its weight behind Euratom’s rejection of the contract.” In brief, that part of the contract that gave Rosatom the exclusive right to supply Paks2 with nuclear fuel for the next twenty years must be renegotiated. As a result, for the time being at least, the Paks project is stalled.
András Giró-Szász, one of the many government spokesmen, argued that the information obtained by The Financial Times was inaccurate. He especially objected to the sentence in the article that read: “The EU has blocked Hungary’s €12bn nuclear deal with Russia.” Nobody “blocked” anything. Initially the Hungarian government talked about demanding a retraction from the newspaper. By the next morning, however, Zoltán Kovács, another government spin doctor, gave up on the idea, especially since The Financial Times had no intention of changing a story that had been verified by three independent sources.
The Hungarian charge might have been based on an erroneous translation of the verb “to block.” Although one of the word’s meanings is “to stop,” it can also mean “to obstruct” or “to impede.” In the latter sense The Financial Times correctly described the situation that developed as a result of Euratom’s decision, sanctioned by the European Commission. As the FT text continued, “The result is to block the whole Paks II expansion. To revive it, Hungary would need to negotiate a new fuel contract or pursue legal action against the commission.” So, the deal is not dead but it must be renegotiated. I might add that in Hungarian “blokkolni” (to block) means only to stop.
Another reason for the confusion, in addition to semantics, is Hungarian secretiveness. 444.hu learned that the Hungarian government insisted on secrecy in its negotiations with Euratom. Therefore, neither the head of Euratom nor the European Commission can say anything about the details of the situation that developed in connection with the Russian contract.
Since the Hungarian government has already lost its battle with Euratom and the Commission, the matter of the nuclear fuel supply must be renegotiated with Rosatom. János Lázár, in an interview on Kossuth Rádió this morning, referred to extensive discussions with “the members of the Russian negotiating team.” There has been some talk about getting nuclear fuel from other suppliers. Westinghouse has been mentioned several times as a possible source, even by János Lázár himself. However, Benedek Jávor, Hungarian MEP of the Greens, got in touch with Westinghouse and the firm denied in writing that there have been any talks between them and the Hungarian government.
What can the Hungarian government do under the circumstances? It could abandon the whole project. The Russians might be quite happy with such a decision since the Russian economy is in serious trouble and the Russian state might not have the resources to lend such a large sum to Hungary even if the project would be beneficial to Rosatom.
The other possibility is to renegotiate the deal and to convince Russia to allow other suppliers to participate in selling nuclear fuel to Paks2. But that might not be too attractive to the Russian partners. The revenues Rosatom receives from selling fuel to nuclear power plants all over the world are an important contributor to the Russian economy, especially now that the price of natural gas and oil is falling. The Russian government might be willing to finance, through its loan to Hungary, a Russian company, but it doesn’t sound like good business from the Russian point of view to finance nuclear rods supplied by, let’s say, Westinghouse or Siemens. Or at least this is what Miklós Hegedűs, an economist specializing in energy matters, said in an interview on HírTV this morning. Finally, the Hungarians can fight the decision of Euratom and the European Commission. Such a move would delay the completion of the project, probably for years. I myself don’t think that Viktor Orbán would venture into such a losing battle.
What we must also keep in mind is that the question of the nuclear fuel supply is not the only one that the European Commission is interested in. Another concern is the Russian loan itself. Is it a form of “state aid,” which is forbidden by EU law? Will it give Paks2 an undue advantage that will distort the Hungarian energy market? If the European Commission decides that this the case, the whole project will have to be scrapped. Still another concern is that the Russians received the job of expanding the nuclear power plant without any competition whatsoever. If the Commission finds the lack of competition a stumbling block, the fate of the project will be sealed.
At the moment, the appropriate cabinets of the European Commission are investigating whether an in-depth investigation of these aspects of the Russian-Hungarian agreement is warranted. Their decision will undoubtedly be influenced by political considerations. How much does the EU worry about Russian influence within the European Union and the role Hungary might play in Vladimir Putin’s power game? If they consider Russia a serious threat to European security, the Commission might be less understanding and forgiving than it has been in the past five years. Until now Viktor Orbán has been lucky, but it is possible that the Brussels bureaucrats will scrutinize Hungary’s blatant disregard of EU laws and its common democratic values more closely now, given Russia’s perceived threat to Europe.