Soso Dzamukashvili, Contributor policy analyst, Central and East European Studies Specialist, M.A. from the University of Glasgow (UK)
Eter Glurjidze, Contributor policy analyst, postgraduate student at the Estonian School of Diplomacy and alumnus of the North China University of Technology
In November 2020, Hungary, along with Poland, tried to block the EU budget over a clause that ties the funding with adherence to the rule of law by member states. The package included €750 billion aimed at assisting the member states to recover from the economic damage caused by COVID-19. Although Brussels was able to eventually approve the budget, this case has demonstrated that there are serious challenges to democracy within the organisation.
The election of Viktor Orbán as Prime Minister of Hungary in 2010 and the changing of the country’s constitution started a new period of suffocation of democratic institutions and the rule of law. Thus, this central European country, which once strived towards liberal democracy, found itself slowly falling prey to the rise of authoritarianism.
In 2019, Freedom House downgraded its freedom index in Hungary to ‘partly free’ due to ‘sustained attacks on the country’s democratic institutions’ and appear side-by-side with Serbia and Montenegro, which are not members of the EU. This ‘new Hungary’ represents a puzzle for the organisation, and raises the question as to whether the EU can hold together as ‘a community of values’. This has been a serious challenge to the union, which has not yet managed to prevent Hungary’s administration from violating democratic institutions.
Figure 1. Democracy backsliding in Hungary since 2010 (Source: Freedom House)
The Pandemic as an Advantageous Factor
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unusual times, which have called for extraordinary measures on a global scale. Although these moves may have been once deemed state power expansion, these stringent measures have become of dire necessity now. Yet, there is a clear line between imposing emergency measures and outright authoritarianism. In the case of Hungary, this line has undoubtedly been crossed, with Prime Minister Orbán having found the ideal situation to obtain more power. The Hungarian government successfully adopted a decree for Mr Orbán, which he has since used to effectively silence critical voices and to persecute free media. Even though it has been declared that these measures will only be in play until the pandemic ends, the real duration seems to be indefinite.
The Hungarian predicament has come to the EU’s doorstep at the most undesired time. The pandemic has provided a good cover for more power-grabbing since COVID-19 called for the consolidation of executive power. Hence, apart from having to deal with the ongoing pandemic crisis, the EU has to contend with one of its members, which has taken advantage of the challenging situation. However, the union has not issued any stark responses, realising, perhaps, that the pandemic might not be the right moment to pick a fight with one of its members. President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has been quite soft towards the situation in Hungary and has abstained from mentioning the country explicitly in her statements. The EU’s April 2020 statement on pandemic measures has been a warning that such strict measures undermine democracy. However, the report was signed solely by 13 member states and did not mention Hungary by name at all. This led many to start questioning the EU’s ability to prevent its member states from diminishing its underpinning values.
The EU’s Ineffective ‘Gentle Diplomacy’?
The parliamentary opposition of the Hungarian incumbent party has shown itself unable to counter Victor Orbán’s quest against the rule of law. The EU thus remains the only mechanism capable of curbing his non-democratic quest. Nevertheless, its legal proceedings have proved unsuccessful at preventing the Hungarian government from undermining democratic values. Although there has been a great deal of criticism, the EU has often taken a peaceful stance towards Hungary, trying to entice it to reform voluntarily. It has been argued that the EU should consider expelling Hungary from the organisation via Article 50, the only tool available to help a country leave the EU. However, it can be triggered only with the state’s will to leave, as it has been in the case of Brexit.
On the other hand, the EU cannot expel a member state unilaterally. Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, a mechanism enabling the EU to suspend certain rights to member states, can be applied to restrict voting power in the European Council. Nonetheless, activating the article requires the EU member states to unanimously determine whether the EU’s democratic values are in fact being dismantled by a member state. The possibility that Hungary and Poland will back each other is high. Re-founding the union without Hungary for the sake of protecting democratic accountability would be too extreme. It may encourage other countries to keep following a non-democratic path, especially during the period of China’s emergence, which many believe aims to promote autocracy in the region.
Another solution, which concerns finances, also presents a challenge. If the EU cuts funding to Hungary, other member states will assume that it sets a precedent for the same to happen to them at some point in the future. Therefore, they will likely be reluctant to ‘punish’ any particular member state.
Furthermore, Hungarian Civic Alliance Fidesz is a member of the largest European People’s Party (EPP), which includes influential politicians such as Angela Merkel and both the current and former presidents of the European Commission. It is considered that isolating Fidesz politically might damage the group’s overall influence. There is also a popular view that Orbán’s political party delivers a great number of votes to the EPP in the European Parliament elections.
A Loss of Trust in Liberal Democracy?
Another challenge for the EU regarding Hungary is connected to the perception of liberal democracy. As Donald Tusk once claimed, ‘the biggest fear today is that people have started to associate liberalism with negative concepts such as vulnerability, disorder, chaos and weakness.’ In 2018, Orbán started to widely condemn liberal democracy. At the same time, Hungary repositioned itself ‘towards the East’. Making a contrast between the East and West, Orbán has been observing how non-Western and non-democratic systems are able to make their nations successful. In addition, while criticising the EU, Orbán has advocated the principle of non-interference, believing that each nation has its own character, embodied in specific and unique political systems.
Voices often blame the EU for inaction, albeit it is obvious that liberal democracy has long begun to suffer on a global scale. Loss of trust in democracy has become the trend not only in Hungary but around the globe. This process is accompanied by the rise of authoritarianism, which very much appeals to the Hungarian government. Despite Budapest’s objections, the EU has managed to overcome the issue of the EU budget this time; yet, it has revealed its inability to stop Hungary’s rollback to autocracy in the long run. Thus, it might need to reform itself to obtain stronger leverage over its non-democratic member states and be more resilient to such issues in future.