Orbán’s ‘Illiberal Democracy': A Lesson for the EU?

Viktor Orbán , Prime Minister of Hungary, right, with Jarosław Kaczyński, Chairman the Polish Law and Justice Party, left.
 Source: Wikimedia Commons, Fot Kompała.Viktor Orbán , Prime Minister of Hungary, right, with Jarosław Kaczyński, Chairman the Polish Law and Justice Party, left. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Fot Kompała.

The EU faces a fork in the road; in May, a new parliament will be elected in Strasbourg. Angela Merkel, the bastion of centrism in Europe and Germany for over a decade, has stepped down as leader of her party.  The past few years in Europe have seen the growth of populism and increasing polarisation, from Brexit, to the rise of the AfD, to the election of populists in Italy. The elections could either further bolster nationalist forces, or rather mark a resurgence of centrists behind Emmanuel Macron.

On Wednesday 20th March, Fidesz, the party of Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary, was suspended from the European People’s Party, the European Parliament’s largest political grouping, in an almost unanimous vote.  Under Orbán, Hungary has grown into a soft autocracy, plagued by crony capitalism and stifled by the single-party rule of Fidesz. Orbán is strong-willed, outspoken, and more than willing to contravene EU consensus. He made headlines in 2015 when he erected a metal fence along Hungary’s southern border to keep out migrants. Orbán’s self-declared ‘illiberal democracy’ is now consolidated domestically, and the EU has done little to stop it.

The dismantlement of democracy in Hungary has been shocking. Viktor Orbán was sworn into office for his second term as Prime Minister in 2010 and since then, he has re-engineered Hungary’s institutional framework swiftly and seemingly unstoppably. With its path smoothed by a two thirds majority, the government has proceeded without much difficulty. Over a five-year period, Fidesz has passed more than 1000 laws. When, for instance, the Constitutional Court struck down Fidesz laws that, amongst other things, criminalised homelessness, Parliament amended the Constitution to include most of the laws rejected by the court.

With a stranglehold on government, Orbán’s reach stretches to the judiciary too – Hungary’s Constitutional Court is made up entirely of judges appointed during Fidesz’s tenure. Academia and the press are being silenced, (at the end of November, around 500 pro-government media outlets in Hungary announced a merger in a single umbrella group owned by a close insider of Orbán). The Central European University has become a symbol of this oppression as it is being effectively forced out of Hungary. Its founder, George Soros, a Hungarian-American billionaire and Holocaust survivor, is anathema to Orbán and is subject to a propagandist and anti-Semitic campaign in which Orbán loyalists falsely claim he is plotting to flood Europe with Muslim migrants.

Orbán’s rule is now secure. In 2018 he won his third consecutive constitutional majority, having gained 49% of the vote. Though he has faced demonstrations over what has been dubbed the ‘slave law’ (under which bosses would be allowed to ask staff to work as much as 400 extra hours per year of overtime, compared with 250 hours currently), political opposition is minimal. Fidesz has introduced election laws that have distorted proportional representation systematically to gerrymander districts.

The Cambridge Globalist spoke with Kim Lane Scheppele, Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Princeton University, and a Hungary specialist. She explained the lack of effective opposition as such: ‘The opposition political parties – whether of the left or of the far right – are all weak and tottering, about to collapse. The State Audit Office, in charge of enforcing campaign finance rules, just issued a bankrupting fine against far-right Jobbik, Orbán’s toughest competitor party […] these are no longer free and fair elections in Hungary.  And the opposition has no chance of organising or toppling Orbán because he controls all of the levers of power’.

The EU response to Orbán’s actions has been both slow and insufficient. Alarm bells have been ringing for years; tellingly, Jean Claude Junker flippantly addressed Orbán with the line “Hello, dictator,” back in 2014. Some moves were made – the European Justice Commissioner at the time of Orbán’s constitutional overhaul, Viviane Reding, launched a series of infringement procedures targeting Orbán’s moves to centralise power, winning two cases against Hungary in the European Court of Justice (independence of the judiciary and of the data protection authority). Yet the EU was largely passive in that crucial period from 2010 to 2014 when Orbán was consolidating his domestic power. It has done little even since. In 2018, Orbán was issued with formal censure over alleged breaches of the EU’s core values – the first such move against a member state under EU rules. The motion was backed by more than two thirds of MEPs. But this is too little, too late.

Orbán has already run roughshod over the EU’s rules. His ‘dance of the peacock’, in which he pushed through his desired changes by distracting EU officials with other more outrageous proposals, allowed him to pursue his own agenda. He has found other ways around European power, too. For instance, in order to circumvent German economic pressure (Hungary has close economic ties with Germany, with a quarter of Hungarian exports going to Germany, and 300,000 people working for German companies), Orbán has often chosen to develop contacts with German companies based in Hungary, and with individual German states rather than the federal government, thereby avoiding the pressure of the central German government.

Investment has moved East. Orbán has looked for new investors in Russia, China and Turkey – states which, unlike the EU, are uninterested in Orbán’s domestic actions, as Scheppele points out: ‘Orbán knows that at some point, European money will run out because the EU cannot tolerate an anti-democratic country in its midst. So, the Eastern Opening is designed to bring Orbán and his autocratic government backup cash, primarily cash from places that don’t care if Hungary is a democracy.  The deals with Russia are well publicised, but less well publicised are the deals that Orbán has struck with China, the central Asian dictatorships and the Gulf States. Orbán is looking for friends with deep pockets who can keep the Hungarian economy afloat once sanctions kick in’.

As Viviane Reding told Euronews, ‘Founders of the European Union never considered the possibility that a Member State could backslide on values and therefore did not create efficient procedures to deal with such a deviation’. The Hungarian example aptly shows that such backslides are eminently possible, and the implications of Hungary’s descent into autocracy extend far beyond the country itself. Though Orbán is an isolated figure amongst the European mainstream, he is applauded by nationalist parties and leaders across the EU – the likes of Geert Wilders, the nationalist Dutch leader of the Party for Freedom, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally (formerly known as the National Front), in France. Wilders tweeted: ‘A bloody shame. Hungary is the example for all EU countries and Orbán is a hero and deserves the Nobel Prize. He closed the borders for Islamic fortune seekers. He protects his citizens against terror and defends the identity of his country’.

Indeed, Orbán likes to think of himself as more than the Hungarian Prime Minister. ‘He thinks he could have been much more powerful if he were from a bigger country’, András Pethő, a senior editor at the independent Hungarian news outlet Direkt36, told the New Yorker. For some, Orbán even represents an alternative vision for Europe. He has attracted the regard and respect of far-right and even mainstream-right movements across Europe.  L’Incorrect, a French magazine founded by a group of young intellectuals associated with Marion Maréchal, a far-right French politician and granddaughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, devoted an issue to ‘the Sun Rising in the East’, in which Orbán was praised for his vision of ‘Christian democracy’. In 2016, Jaroslaw Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s governing Law and Justice party and the country’s de facto leader, said: ‘Viktor Orbán has demonstrated that in Europe things are possible […] You have given an example, and we are learning from your example’. No mere Eurosceptic, Orbán poses an alternative idea of Europe for those dissatisfied with the status quo.

Following a long period of reluctance to take action over Fidesz, its suspension has come after a new wave of Hungarian propaganda – billboards depicting Jean-Claude Juncker (a prominent member of the EPP) and George Soros, seemingly in cahoots. ‘You have the right to know what Brussels is planning’, the billboards say. ‘It’s shocking that such a ludicrous conspiracy theory has reached the mainstream’, European Commission spokesperson Margaritis Schinas told reporters.

Such widespread conspiracy illuminates how far Hungary has fallen from the post-Soviet promise of democracy.  An erosion of democratic EU values on this scale should not have happened in a member state. Michael Ignatieff, rector of the Budapest-based Central European University, has seen in the Hungarian case the ‘collusion and compliance’ of Brussels, describing Orbán’s stance as ‘run against the EU from Monday to Friday; cash its cheques on Saturday and Sunday’. EU funding to Hungary has not stopped, and on a good year the subsidies Hungary receives from Brussels can be the equivalent of as much as 6% of GDP. Sandor Lederer, who runs the K-Monitor anti-corruption watchdog in Budapest, said in an interview with NPR that  the money is often misused. ‘It’s often channelled into the pockets of people close to the government who overspend or simply do terrible work’.

The EU Civil Liberties Committee, the standing committee of the European Parliament that is responsible for protecting civil liberties and human rights, has now criticised the EU Council, the collective body that defines the European Union’s overall political direction and priorities, over its inaction over Hungary. Those who defend the EU Council say that it is ill-equipped to respond to challenges to rule of law under Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty – which demands all EU countries respect the values of the EU – and that other measures would be more effective in calling Hungary to account, such as conditionality of EU funding or regular peer review.

Certainly, the nature of the EU makes it difficult to take action. The sympathetic Polish Law and Justice party has the power of veto over actions taken against Hungary. Moreover, the European Commission has difficulty in combatting systemic corruption in a member state – though OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud agency, has raised concerns about specific European-funded projects in Hungary, it is reliant upon national prosecutors for investigations. Yet the failure to employ other measures elucidates the real problem – lack of political will. As Scheppele notes, ‘the European Commission (with regard to Poland) and the European Parliament (with regard to Hungary) have not even been able to convince the Council to invoke even the smaller step of Article 7(1) which only requires four-fifths of the member states to support a warning! So, the problem is a more general lack of political will among the EU member states and not only a veto point in Article 7’.

Poland’s Law and Justice Party shares notable similarities with Fidesz, for it is a nationalist, populist, anti-immigration party that supports EU membership but wishes to reverse European integration. Indeed, following the European People’s Party’s suspension of Fidesz, Orbán has said that, if it leaves the EPP, Fidesz will discuss an alliance with the Law and Justice Party.  Elected in 2015 as the first democratically elected one-party government in Poland’s history, the Law and Justice Party has since launched a series of changes which have jeopardised the independence of the judiciary. The Freedom House has concluded that the measures ‘resulted in a dramatic decline in the quality of Polish democracy’, estimating that if the Law and Justice Party maintains its current level and direction of reforms for a further two years, Poland will drop down to the category of ‘partly free’ countries. Hungary was the first EU member state to enter earlier this year. The EU should take note.

In December, following pressure from Brussels, the Law and Justice Party reinstated the judges it ousted from the Supreme Court after it controversially lowered the retirement age. Yet Hungary’s example shows that the EU must not be complacent. Faced with the contravention of its principles by Hungary and Poland, the growing rift between Macron’s France and populist Italy, the departure of Britain, and the stepping down of that staunch figurehead – Merkel – the EU must respond to the changing political climate. Its failure to act on the erosion of democracy in Hungary is unacceptable, and the lack of political will to deal with it sends a poor message to member states violating EU values, such as Poland.  Like any longstanding political institution, the EU must learn to change; such is the lesson of NATO’s success. As NATO adapted to being a post-Cold War institution, evolving with new technologies and an altered geopolitical state of play, the EU must adapt to be a pan-European institution, encompassing its Central and Eastern European member states and their very different traditions. It is only in doing this that it can deal with the rise of nationalist populism that this decade has seen. Macron has said that the European project must not remain a prisoner to Brexit. This much is true. More importantly, it must not remain a prisoner to its own inaction and political lethargy, left behind in a changing political climate.