The thorny Hungarian question of the EU

On April 3, Hungarian illiberal and ultra-nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban won a fourth term. While the West remains obsessed with the war next door in Ukraine, the threat of Hungary’s continued drift away from liberal democracy comes from within the Western home. It remains embarrassing for a bloc that holds itself out as a model for human rights and the rule of law to have a member who respects neither.

Orban remains popular at home, but his election was not exactly free and fair. In classic authoritarian fashion, Orban used his years of power and control over the levers of the state to stack the cards dramatically in his favor. The state media is dominated by propaganda from state-funded parties, and the private media is largely controlled by Orban’s allies. Opposition parties are barred from advertising on television, while the ruling party gets ample airtime through “public service” announcements.

Orban’s government has also reworked the electoral law to boost its chances, including carrying out a harsh gerrymander and adjusting the formula for allocating seats in parliament, allowing his Fidesz party to secure a supermajority twice while that he had obtained less than half of the votes. The system he designed entrenches minority rule with near total power.

The judiciary is the third lever that Orban manipulated to serve his needs. In 2018, his party’s supermajority established a parallel judicial system under executive control to adjudicate “public administration” cases, thereby insulating the executive from any government accountability or control.

To the extent that Hungary remains a democracy, it is illiberal at best (a term even Orban himself uses to describe his state), and illiberal democracies remain a threat to a rules-based global order. After all, even Russian President Vladimir Putin is pretending to win open elections.

What is so infuriating about Orban’s entrenched rule is that EU money has helped solidify it. Since joining in 2004, Hungary has received significant financial assistance from the EU and over $64 billion in structural support and investment. More than 80% of public investments in Hungary were financed by the EU. Hungary’s gross domestic product per capita grew by 57% in its first 13 years in the EU.

More recently, Orban has been a deviation from an otherwise unified EU stance against Putin’s war. He has refused to allow arms from Ukraine to pass through Hungarian territory, maintains close economic relations with Russia and insists that Hungary remain neutral in the war. Orban has long been a close ally of Putin, so it’s no surprise, but he stands in stark contrast to everyone else in the community.

Even before that, the EU was struggling with how to deal with Hungary’s democratic backsliding. When Hungary and other former communist nations joined the European Union, liberal democracies were at the top, and history was thought to be moving towards ever greater liberalisation. The institution assumed that once countries adopted a democratic system, democratic institutions would maintain it. It didn’t contemplate the kind of backsliding we saw with Hungary and, to a lesser extent, Poland, so it didn’t establish a mechanism to oust a member for misconduct.

The EU has provisions to suspend certain rights of members in the event of violation of the founding EU values ​​of freedom, democracy, rule of law and human rights. Such an act, however, requires unanimity, which the 27-member bloc is unlikely to achieve as long as Poland is also courting illiberal tendencies.

The EU changed its rules to condition some funding on democratic standards, and in February Hungary and Poland lost a court case to overturn that. It took about a decade for the EU to get there, but this rule change is a strong sign that there are finally limits to the institution’s tolerance of bad actors.

Europe waited too long and tolerated too much during Hungary’s ascending trajectory into the EU.

It was likely the result of a familiar narrative, one that three decades of liberal world order have long championed: open markets, trade, and exposure to liberal values ​​over time would simply spread. The West said the same thing with China’s joining the World Trade Organization two decades ago.

And yet, illiberalism is growing today. What would have been the trajectory of Hungary if the EU had conditioned its financial support on democratic behavior 15 years ago?

At this point, if the withholding of funds fails to change Hungary’s behavior, the European Union must find a way to drive Hungary out.

Elizabeth Shackelford is a research fellow on American foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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