Europe’s Rogue State - Hungary - Maddie Small?
“The new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state”.
Viktor Orbán, Hungary's Prime Minister, robustly stated this in a speech at Băile Tuşnad (Romania) in 2014. Yet, years later, the EU member state’s illiberalism has made it an enemy to its own union states, and billions of euros worth of EU funds are blocked from the nation.
Who is Viktor Orbán, and how has he maintained power for so long?
Since the 1990s, Orbán has transformed from a liberal politician to a national conservative and later to a populist radical-right leader. Political analysts have argued that his protean nature is all for gaining personal power, shifting positions to cement himself as an indisputable figure in the Fidesz party.
In 2010, Orbán’s overwhelming victory allowed him to rewrite the Hungarian constitution, weakening legal checks on its authority, interfering with media freedom, and undermining human rights protection within the country. Independent media were shut down. Courts were filled with cronies. The electoral system was rewritten. Fences were built to keep out refugees, and, most importantly, the Hungarian government formed close relations with the authoritarian governments of Russia and China.
So what has kept Orbán in power? The constitutional and political changes enforced since 2010 have been the primary reason. Additionally, many of his populist policies are popular within the nation, with the state heavily investing in welfare spending.
Human Rights in Hungary
Since 2010, the Fidesz party has used its supermajority in parliament to make significant changes to the country’s legal framework that weaken legal checks on its authority, interfere with media freedom, and otherwise undermine human rights protection in the country.
The Hungarian government has silenced media freedom and pluralism, with the Fidesz party financing 80% of the political and public affairs news channels. As a result, many journalists left or were forced to leave while being described as ‘non-Hungarians’ by the government.
On top of that, the centralisation of power limits academic institutions’ freedom and independence. Orbán attempts to control them by limiting ‘liberal’ resources and banning studies, such as gender studies.
In June 2021, the government banned those under 18 from material that promotes “divergence from self-identity corresponding to sex at birth or homosexuality”. This homophobic and transphobic law violated the rights to freedom of expression, non-discrimination and education. In response to this, the European Commission launched an infringement procedure.
These violations are just the beginning. Without a proper rule of law, the protection of human rights in Hungary will continue to diminish.
Hungary, as an EU member state
As the EU grew over decades, there was great care to ensure that any new members met a series of essential criteria: that its democratic systems were not robust, that its judiciary was independent and that its authorities respected the rule of law and the rights of minorities. However, it didn’t account for a scenario where one of its members would start to roll things back - leaving the bloc of democratic members with a government using authoritarian tactics to entrench its rule.
Transformed Hungary presents an increasing challenge for the EU, especially considering the nation’s close ties with authoritarian Russia and China, whose interests they protect when voting. In Article 2 of the EU Treaty, liberal and democratic values are guaranteed. Thus, his government has breached core EU values.
“The Commission has done its utmost,” said Viviane Reding, who served as the European Commission’s vice president in charge of justice, fundamental rights and citizenship from 2010 to 2014. “It is very frustrating because ‘the utmost’ is not enough in order to solve such a problem, which nobody had intellectually speaking foreseen, and didn’t put the means and tools in order to handle.”
While tensions between illiberal Hungary and the EU have been present for years, it became far worse after the Russian attack on Ukraine in February. Almost every European government demonstrated solidarity with Ukraine and its commitment to the international rule of law. Numerous European leaders have journeyed to Kyiv to hold talks with Volodymyr Zelenskii, but, in contrast, Orbán has declined to make the symbolic journey.
Orbán’s reluctance to visit or engage in talks is unsurprising given his close economic and political ties with Vladimir Putin. He has attempted to impede efforts by the European Union to widen the scope of sanctions targeting Russia, prompting one commentator to label him a ‘Trojan Horse’ inside the EU.
Orbán has even suggested that the west and Ukraine provoked Russia’s military action by refusing to give an undertaking that Ukraine would not be admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance and declining to provide other security guarantees sought by Moscow.
Evidently, the Hungarian Prime Minister aligns with Russia and sees the EU as an enemy, prompting other member states to call for action on the nation’s illiberal and authoritarian tendencies as it poses a severe threat to national security.
Since the criteria of the European Union cannot be used to make countries respect the values after joining the institution; the EU has been urging Hungary to make improvements through Article 7 of the TEU, a mechanism designed to deter member states from advancing policies that threaten democratic institutions by imposing sanctions.
This November, the European Parliament insisted that the EU freeze funding to the country and the president of the European Commission proposed that up to 13.3 billion in EU funds should be withheld. After EU member states agreed, measures were imposed upon Hungary as a consequence of breaches of the principles of the rule of law in Hungary concerning public procurement, the effectiveness of prosecutorial action, and the fight against corruption in Hungary. As a result, approximately 6.3 billion euros in budgetary commitments have been blocked until Hungary can address its breaches in EU values, a response that has significantly impacted Hungary’s economy.
Will EU sanctions work to improve democratic principles in Hungary in the coming years, or will Orbán continue to view the EU as the enemy, aligning with opposing principles? Only time will tell.