Viktor Orban
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The Liberum Veto: A History and a Warning

Abstract: Based on recent political disagreements between the European Union/NATO and Hungary, the requirements for unanimity in decision-making by these two multinational organisations repeat the tradition of the Liberum Veto of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and could very well lead to their self-destruction—just as happened to the Commonwealth. There are similarities between today and an earlier era when Moscow was able to manipulate an opponent’s requirement for unanimity in decision-making. By providing a short history of the Commonwealth and the Liberum Veto, it becomes apparent how Russia was able to undermine Commonwealth politics via the Liberum Veto and, through political subversion and other statecraft tools, eventually destroy it. The same statecraft tools used by Russia in the 18th century against the Commonwealth are being used in the 21st century against NATO.

Problem statement: How to understand the issues related to the Liberum Veto in the context of international organisations?

So what?: The two largest and most useful multinational organisations designed to safeguard the collective prosperity and security of the West must solve this problem immediately to guarantee quick responses to national security threats. Otherwise, a requirement for unanimity in decision-making can lead to either the organisation being manipulated by Moscow or its eventual self-destruction.

Source: Michailidis

Stemming the Expansion of Russian Power into Europe?

Requirements for unanimity in decision-making have slowed or continue to shackle two specific efforts by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) to respond to Russian aggression: Sweden’s accession into NATO and a €50-billion ($54.5-billion) EU aid package to Ukraine, respectively. The veto requirement in these organisations is likely to thwart or seriously delay other efforts towards security in the future.

Requirements for unanimity in decision-making have slowed or continue to shackle two specific efforts by NATO and the EU to respond to Russian aggression.

This situation has an almost direct parallel in European history. An earlier requirement for unanimity, the Liberum Veto (free veto), helped destroy another multinational polity stemming the expansion of Russian power into Europe: The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The history of the Commonwealth provides a clear warning that a desire for unanimity can lead to self-destruction. History seems to be repeating itself with regard to the recent Hungarian vetoes in EU and NATO forums to either help Ukraine or strengthen Europe against Russian aggression.

The Hungarian Veto

Hungary’s veto on December 15, 2023, of the  €50-billion EU aid package to Ukraine was partly another chapter of a political struggle between Brussels and Budapest.[1] Just two days before, the EU agreed to release €11 billion to Budapest, which had been withheld due to Hungarian democratic backsliding. However, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán vetoed the Ukrainian aid measure because the EU continued to freeze an additional €23 billion in funds intended for Hungary. By vetoing the Ukrainian aid package, Hungary hoped to get something it wanted by preventing the EU from doing something it wanted. On February 1, 2024, Orbán dropped his veto just prior to a second EU vote for the aid package after being threatened with a possible suspension of Hungary’s EU voting rights. For this concession, Hungary is likely to receive an additional € 6.3 billion in EU cohesion funds that have been frozen over its rule-of-law shortcomings.[2] Therefore, Orbán won a domestic political victory by gaining another substantial infusion of previously frozen EU funds while continuing to weaken Brussels’ attempts to hold Hungary accountable for violations of EU democratic norms. The delay of this vital aid package by almost two months also benefited Orbán’s erstwhile ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, by helping Russian efforts weaken Ukraine’s economy and degrade Kyiv’s ability to defend itself.

Similarly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also has a close personal relationship with Putin and has not been shy in sometimes balancing Turkish foreign policy between NATO and Russian priorities to receive the best deal for Ankara. Türkiye delayed its vote approving NATO membership for Sweden for over a year and a half to pressure Stockholm on its support for Kurdish refugees in its country, many of whom Ankara considers terrorists or terrorist supporters, as well as to show its pique over Swedish criticisms of Türkiye’s human rights abuses.[3]  

Türkiye delayed its vote approving NATO membership for Sweden for over a year and a half to pressure Stockholm on its support for Kurdish refugees in its country.

Now that Türkiye has finally voted in favour of Swedish NATO membership, the only hurdle is again Hungary. NATO would greatly benefit from Swedish membership based on its geographic position, modern armed forces, and strong military-industrial base. These factors seem to be of little concern to Orbán, who said in September 2023 that Hungary was in “no rush” to approve Sweden’s membership request, while members of his government accused Swedish politicians of lying about the state of democracy in Hungary.[4] On January 23, 2024, the day that Türkiye voted for Swedish NATO membership, Orbán invited Sweden to “negotiate” with Hungary over its NATO bid. However,  Sweden’s prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, declined, basically refusing to take back earlier criticisms of Hungarian democratic backsliding on norms that NATO is designed to protect.[5] While Orbán recently said that he would urge parliament to support Sweden’s accession, Hungary’s speaker of the parliament repeated that Hungary is in to address the issue.[6] Should this impasse continue over Sweden’s NATO membership, the greatest beneficiary will again be Orbán’s key foreign partner—Vladimir Putin—because a Hungarian veto would prevent a strong candidate country with impeccable democratic credentials from strengthening the alliance.

Both events can be interpreted as the cynical manipulation of alliance goals by national leaders putting domestic political needs ahead of the foreign policy priorities of other states. However, they demonstrate the disproportionate amount of power and leverage that EU/NATO requirements for unanimity in decision-making give to such leaders, which can only encourage them further and encourage other imitators. These two examples should also serve as a warning of worse problems to come should Moscow ever develop decisive influence with the leader or political party of an EU or NATO member state.

The Destroyed Political System

This situation recalls the circumstances of an earlier era when a requirement for unanimity helped destroy a multinational political system that shielded Europe from Eastern threats for centuries. That system was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the requirement for unanimity in decision-making was known as the Liberum Veto. Understanding the Commonwealth’s history and how the Liberum Veto undermined it as a warning for our age is timely.

This situation recalls the circumstances of an earlier era when a requirement for unanimity helped destroy a multinational political system that shielded Europe from Eastern threats for centuries.

The Commonwealth was established in 1386 when the marriage of Poland’s Queen Jadwiga and Lithuania’s Grand Duke Jagiełło co-joined the two countries into a single political entity, ruled for almost two centuries by what would become known as the Jagiellonian dynasty. Its territory would expand until, in the 16th century, it extended from the Baltic Sea through modern-day Poland, western Belarus, and Ukraine to the headwaters of the Black Sea.

When the Jagiellonian line died out, what had been a personal dynasty was transformed into a constitutional union via the Treaty of Lublin (1569). While the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania each remained sovereign with their own laws and nobilities, they were jointly ruled by an elected king and a common parliament known as the Sejm. The king swore an oath to the Sejm promising to uphold a list of constitutional principles that included the continued elections of kings, religious tolerance, and the rights of the nobles to overview royal decisions, including those imposing taxes, concluding foreign treaties, and declaring war. These prerogatives became known as “Polish liberties.”

A key “Polish liberty” was the Liberum Veto, which allowed a single noble to reject a law being debated by the Sejm and dissolve the Sejm. The Liberum Veto was designed to respect decisions made at the Commonwealth’s lower administrative levels, promote consensus, and encourage nobles to win over minority factions rather than defeat them with majority votes.

For almost a century and a half after the Treaty of Lublin, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth prospered and served as a check against the further Western expansion of the empires of the Russian Tsars and Ottomans. During Russia’s extended dynastic political crisis known as the Time of Troubles, Polish forces occupied Moscow (1610-1612). In 1683, Polish cavalry under King Jan Sobieski III lifted the Ottoman siege of Vienna, which halted the expansion of Islam into Europe.

However, while successful in blunting threats from the east and south, the Commonwealth was less successful in defending itself against threats from the north or from within. A Swedish invasion in the mid-17th century weakened the country, while internally, the Liberum Veto prevented political and social reforms. As Russia recovered from the Time of Troubles, it restarted its advance westward, defeated the Commonwealth in the Great Northern War (1700-1721), and made it a Russian protectorate.[7]

A Tool for Manipulation

The Liberum Veto served as an excellent tool for Russia to manipulate Commonwealth politics. Russian ambassadors often only needed to bribe just a single noble to exercise the Liberum Veto and prevent the Commonwealth from regaining its strength by either enlarging its army, reforming its tax structure, or ending the Liberum Veto itself.

Russian ambassadors often only needed to bribe just a single noble to exercise the Liberum Veto.

Russia also used other tools to control the Commonwealth’s politics. Sometimes, it used overt military force, as in the War of Polish Succession (1733-1735), to put its claimant, Augustus III, on the throne. During his 30-year reign, only one session of the Sejm passed any legislation due to the Liberum Veto and other infighting. After the death of Augustus III, Russia used bribery and threats of military force to coerce the Sejm into electing Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, a former lover of Tsarina Catherine the Great, as the Commonwealth’s next king. When Poniatowski turned out to be not as pliable as Catherine had hoped, Russia fomented religious strife among the Commonwealth’s Orthodox and Protestant minorities. When these minorities petitioned the Tsarina for aid, Russian troops were sent “to protect” them and ensure that the Sejm abandoned planned reforms and acquiesced to a treaty allowing Russia to “guarantee Polish liberties” perpetually.

This cynical intervention caused an anti-Russian rebellion known as the Bar Confederation (1768-1772), which led to the first partition of the Commonwealth. The partition raised fears of Russian encroachment amongst the other great powers abutting the Commonwealth, Prussia and Austria, so they too had to be rewarded with territory. Unfortunately for the Commonwealth, every time Russia “guaranteed Polish liberties,” there ended up being less of Poland and fewer liberties. Two further partitions (1793 and 1795) wiped both Lithuania and Poland from the map of Europe for 123 years.[8]

Consensus over Effectiveness

The value of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth should not be underestimated. From the late 14th century to the end of the 18th century, the union, first dynastic and later constitutional, protected Europe from Muscovy and the Ottoman Empire. This protection allowed the intellectual currents of the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment to form, flourish, and set the foundation for what is today the West’s liberal democratic tradition. Had it been otherwise, the canon of Western political and social traditions might have been formed by quite different influences.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s fate and the Liberum Veto’s misuse are clear warnings of how a desire for consensus over effectiveness can destroy an institution from within and allow for manipulation from without.

A Need for Qualified Majorities

NATO and the EU are the current bulwarks against Russian aggression: overt and covert. Yet modern Russia is as adept at military coercion, bribery, manipulating ethnic and religious minorities, and political subversion via complicit political parties and figures, as it was in the 18th century. If Russian subversion makes just one country its Trojan Horse, Moscow can manipulate any institution requiring unanimity in decision-making that country belongs to. NATO and the EU must reform to prevent this. While Hungary is the prime example, it may not be the only one.

If Russian subversion makes just one country its Trojan Horse, Moscow can manipulate any institution requiring unanimity in decision-making that country belongs to.

A de facto Liberum Veto exists in Europe’s two most influential organisations: the EU and NATO. Reforms that allow for careful consideration of alliance equities without letting one nation prevent all others from moving towards a common good are needed. Requiring a supermajority of three-quarters, seven-eighths, or even 90 per cent of member states to agree on EU or NATO decisions would still require that a decision be equitable for the overwhelming majority of members without the disruption or manipulation that a modern-day Liberum Veto can cause. Otherwise, both organisations risk letting 18th-century Russian tactics undermine another multinational union again in the 21st century.

Philip Wasielewski is the Director of the Center for the Study of Intelligence and Nontraditional Warfare at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) and an FPRI Templeton Fellow for National Security. Before retirement, he had a dual career in government service as a paramilitary operations officer in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations for 31 years and as a colonel in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. He has an MA from the Army War College in National Security Studies and an MA from Harvard in Regional Studies: Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia. Besides publications with FPRI and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the author published in the Wall Street Journal, Lawfare, Moscow Times, Washington Times, Real Clear Defense, Real Clear World, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, and the Marine Corps Gazette. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone.

[1] Alexandra Sharp, Hungary Vetoes EU Aid Package for Ukraine: Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s decision, Foreign Policy, December 15, 2023,

[2] Gregoria Sorgi, Barbara Moens, and Elisa Braun, EU approves €50B Ukraine aid as Viktor Orban folds, POLITICO, February 01, 2024,; Moens, Barbara; Barigazzi, Jacopo; Caulcutt, Clea, and Wax, Eddy, EU threatens to silence Hungary if it blocks EU funds, POLITICO, January 26, 2024,

[3] Simon Johnson, Huseyin Hayatsever, and Anne Kauranen, Why are Turkey and Hungary against Sweden joining NATO?, Reuters, April 05, 2023,; Ben Hubbard and Lara Jakes, Turkey Backs Sweden’s NATO Bid, New York Times, January 23, 2024,

[4] Bela Szandelszky, Prime Minister Orban says Hungary in no rush to ratify Sweden’s NATO bid, Associated Press, September 25, 2023,

[5] Gergely Szakacs, Anita Komuves, and Simon Johnson, Hungary’s Orban invites Swedish PM for NATO talks, Reuters, January 23, 2024,; Simon Johnson, Bart  Miejer, Andrew Gray, and Krisztina Fenyo, Swedish PM says won’t negotiate with Hungary on NATO, Stoltengerg ‘confident’, Reuters, January 26, 2024,

[6] Andrew Higgins, Orban Uses Sweden’s NATO Bid to Take Center Stage in Europe, New York Times, January 24, 2024,; Anita Komuves, and Gergely Szakacs, Hungary parliament speaker sees ‘no urgency’ in voting on Sweden’s NATO accession, Reuters, January 25, 2024,

[7] For more on the history of the Jagiellonian Dynasty and the Polish-Lithuianian Commonwealth, see Norman Davies, Heart of Europe: A Short History of Poland, Oxford University Press, 1984, 291-306.

[8] Davies, op. cit; Daniel Stone, The Polish-Lithuanian State, 1386-1795, University Washington Press, 2001, 268-288; John LeDonne, The Russian Empire and the World, 1700-1917: The Geopolitics of Expansion and Containment, Oxford University Press, 1997, 41-62.

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