They might seem odd bedfellows – Hungary’s populist strongman and the arch-liberal German Chancellor. But, after this week, Viktor Orban is Angela Merkel’s newest fan. Thanks to her, a cut of the $2.2 trillion pandemic stimulus package will be making its way to Budapest, despite MEPs’ bid to withhold it from countries that “breach the rule of law.”

Hungary, along with Poland, stood to lose tens of billions of EU taxpayer cash if the new provisions, due to come into force next week, were applied. They’ll give Brussels new powers to suspend payments to countries they deem to have undermined judicial independence and fail to crack down on corruption. Both Central European nations have regularly been accused of doing just that and had threatened to veto the entire package rather than risk being left out.

That left EU nations looking at an impasse when they are most in need of cash to pay for lockdowns, prop up businesses and pay their growing unemployment bills. Given how unity within the bloc is fraying over political and economic challenges like Brexit, the row came at the worst possible time. And so Merkel, often framed as the defender of European democracy, held her nose and did a deal with the populists.

In a decision that Orban described on Sunday as “a victory of reason,” the money taps will be turned on and the rule of law provisions won’t be applied until they get the green light from the European Court of Justice, where Hungary and Poland are expected to challenge the plans. The whole process could take years, stretching out still further attempts by liberal lawmakers to sanction the troublesome duo. Merkel’s Germany brokered the compromise, handing over the cash but leaving the prospect of sanctions on the table. In an interview with a German newspaper, Orban gushed that Merkel’s handling of the issue was “brilliant,” and that the allegations against his government are “ridiculous.” 

Both staunchly Catholic countries say that the measures are really attempts at bulldozing their culture, and their rights to set the rules on contentious social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Brussels mandarins, on the other hand, see their divergence from liberal democratic norms as an existential threat to the foundations of the EU, which has gone from trade organisation to political union. Orban’s party, Fidesz, was suspended last year from the EU Parliament’s conservative European People’s Party grouping over claims they were silencing opposition media and rolling back judicial protections.

It’s hard to see how this is anything but an unqualified victory for Orban, whose team led the lobbying charge, and for Poland, which has proceeded down its own illiberal path in the face of EU norms. While the threat of sanctions still hangs in the air, the bloc has proved that it is effectively unable to implement them, especially given the two countries look out for each other, threatening to veto anything more than toothless measures.

Merkel, on the other hand, is laying her credibility on the line. By settling for a quieter life and ensuring the coronavirus stimulus package gets waved through, she has effectively conceded that political concerns within the bloc are less important than economic ones. In the past, her credentials as the stalwart of European centrism has been enough to inoculate her against criticisms for cosying up to unsavoury characters on the world stage. That has enabled her to avoid much of the scrutiny that, for example, Theresa May took at home for receiving Donald Trump. It has given her leeway to pursue a two-track foreign policy, where she can simultaneously be Europe’s liberal defender and a horse-trading shrewd dealer who leaves issues of principle at the door.

But now, as she prepares to hand over the reins after more than 15 years at the helm, it is unlikely that any successor will have that much goodwill to fall back on. By kicking the issue of the rule of law within the EU into the long grass, she has inadvertently laid a trap for the leaders that come next. It is them, not her, who will have to brave either a monumental showdown with Hungary and Poland, or else face domestic pressure for their inaction, in a way that Merkel never has.

For all the talk of European values and the advance of liberal values within Brussels, the reality is that countries at the heart of Europe are getting further and further away. As long as the EU insists that its purpose is collectivism, unity and so-called pooled sovereignty, it will find itself on an inevitable collision course with countries that don’t share the same culture, history or aspirations as politicians in Paris, Berlin and Vienna. 

While Britain saw that growing political activism among EU chiefs and decided to walk away, Viktor Orban has looked at it and decided he’s up for the fight.