Why Hungary matters

If you’ve followed the politics of the European Union over the last few years, you’ll know that Jean-Claude Juncker, the centre-right Luxembourg politician who was the EU’s prime minister until last November, is not exactly known as a bold or radical leader.

So if even Juncker thinks that the EU has been unduly timid in its response to recent developments in Hungary, it’s a fair bet that something has gone badly wrong.

Speaking to Politico, Juncker said that he had hoped that “the governments and the [European] Commission will call a spade a spade,” because “When it comes to the rule of law standard, it is not wishy-washy, but plain language that counts.” The Hungarian government, he said, has acted “outside of any reasonable zone.”

Hungary’s slide towards dictatorship is not new. A year and a half ago, the European parliament voted to censure Hungary under article seven of the EU constitution, for a “clear risk of serious breach” of the EU’s fundamental values. Six months later, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) suspended the membership of FIDESz, the party of Hungarian prime minister Victor Orbán.

But Orbán showed not the slightest sign of being deterred from his authoritarian agenda. Instead, he took the opportunity of the Covid-19 crisis to secure legislation creating an indefinite state of emergency, giving his government power to rule by decree and imposing jail terms for “spreading misinformation.”

Only time will tell whether domestic pressure will oblige him to repeal or modify the law when the crisis is over, but the prospects don’t look good. A variety of observers have proclaimed that Hungary has crossed a red line, comparing it to the Enabling Act of 1933 that legitimised the Nazi dictatorship in Germany.

But the reaction from the leaders of both the EU and the EPP has been less forthright. Juncker’s successor as the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, warned that emergency responses should not come “at the expense of our fundamental principles and values,” but neglected to mention Hungary by name. Donald Tusk, the president of the EPP, was also notably restrained in his criticism.

The EU is in a difficult position here, but it is not handling it well. Any threats to discipline Hungary under article seven are basically hollow – a finding of a breach would require unanimity among the other EU members, and there is no way Poland would go along – and they risk arousing fears of EU overreach among other central and eastern European governments.

Nonetheless, there should be no compromise when it comes to basic democratic values. If the EU is not willing to make a stand now, when will it? Von der Leyen needs to listen to the parliament, where even the majority of EPP members supported the censure in September 2018. (Although Britain’s Conservatives, then still in the EU, voted overwhelmingly against.)

But the implications of what is happening in Hungary reach wider than just Europe. Orbán has collected a suite of admirers around the world, many of them in what still claim to be centre-right parties: not just (of course) Donald Trump, but also the likes of former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, who just months ago went out of his way to praise Orbán’s methods and objectives.

Earlier this month, Damon Linkler at the Week recited the support Orbán has received from conservative intellectuals. I’m not sure that he’s right to say that “it’s far more than most of them” have given Trump, but it’s enough to be genuinely scary. These are people who are helping to systematically undermine the foundations of democracy.

Linkler wonders if the latest move will lead to an awakening:

Perhaps realizing at long last that they were foolish to place their hopes in Orbán and his anti-liberal movement, they understand now that their center-right and center-left critics were right from the start: The man has long been an enemy of pluralism and freedom, a wannabe dictator waiting for the perfect pretext to snuff out Hungary’s liberal democracy after years of systematically weakening its defenses.

But he’s clearly not optimistic on that score, and certainly the last fortnight has provided little evidence for it.

The truth is that Orbán’s intentions have been crystal clear for a long time to anyone who cared to look. Those who have chosen to support him may have been wilfully blind, but they cannot plead ignorance. Instead what they show is that for many leaders of the modern right, being an enemy of democracy is no disqualification.

2 thoughts on “Why Hungary matters

  1. If the EU is not willing to make a stand now, when will it?

    That’s the question.

    When the concentration camps open? but perhaps Orbán isn’t going to do that.

    When journalists and opposition activists are murdered and there’s no effective investigation? but perhaps that isn’t on Orbán’s agenda either.

    When all Rromani people are required to be registered, and report to police stations regularly? maybe that too is not part of the plan.

    What is there some prospect of Orbán doing, beyond what he’s already done? Bad things, probably, but which ones?

    Territorial demands on Hungary’s neighbours I think we can rule out: he can’t imagine the EU would let him get away with those. The question isn’t just what is the action the EU won’t tolerate, but what is the action Orbán might be interested in that the EU won’t tolerate, and that can’t be answered without some idea of what Orbán is interested in doing with his new powers, and that’s more than I can guess.

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    1. Yes, well put. I don’t think concentration camps are likely, but occasional murder of journalists and opposition leaders (à la Putin) wouldn’t particularly surprise me. Nor would registration of Roma. It’s a question of both how much the EU leadership would tolerate, and how much other EU members would tolerate – particularly Poland, which is the weakest link.

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