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  • Ananya Sreekumar

Hungary tussles with the consequences of the EU's disdain


Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the second day of the working session of European conservative party leaders at the Regent Warsaw Hotel on December 4, 2021.

For over a decade, the viability of Hungary’s democracy under Viktor Orban has turned into the deepest thorn in the EU’s flesh. With the politicisation of the judiciary, significant government influence over the media houses, issues of racial purity and restriction of LGBTQ+ rights...the list goes on– Orban is steadily erasing the basic norms of democracy.

Despite numerous disciplinary means at its disposal, the EU has held back against Orban and his Fidesz party for years. Potential consequences against transgressing member-states require unanimous support from other EU members. Budapest can rely on support from their populist cronies in Poland. The latter can use vetoes to provide the Hungarian government with cover. That was until the European Commission finally took the first shot.

On April 19, an EU resolution was passed on April 19 with 433 in favour and 123 against and 28 abstentions– lawmakers declaring Hungary was "a hybrid regime of electoral autocracy" rather than a democracy. The EU parliament resolution exhibited "deep concern about the deliberate and systematic efforts of the Hungarian Government to undermine the founding values" of the EU.

Later that same month, the European Commission triggered the new conditionality mechanism, fearing the Hungarian misuse of EU funds and corruption. This could deny the newly re-elected Orban government more than 40 billion euros in EU funding, which made Hungary the first member country to be slapped with the new rule-of-law budgetary power adopted in 2020.

After months of negotiations following the threats made by Brussels in April, the Commission made an unprecedented move on September 18. The Commission formally recommended the suspension of 7.5 billion euros of Hungary’s EU funding which is almost a fifth of the money designated in the 2021-2027 EU budget. The decision to suspend funds will have to be backed by at least 55% of member states representing 65% of the EU population, and the Commission will report back in November.

Alongside the recommendation, the Commission published a 52-page report pointing to 17 initiatives Hungary had proposed to quell concerns regarding the integrity of Hungarian democracy. These initiatives included the creation of an “Integrity Authority” to face up to corruption, a pledge to curb the share of single-bid contracts and fortifying the government’s cooperation with the bloc’s anti-fraud agency. The Commission indicated it would consider giving Budapest the withheld funds if it followed through on said initiatives. It also claimed that Hungary had made headway on proposed corrective measures and would report on the country’s progress by November 19.

Brussel’s claims were understandably met with backlash from leading civil society groups who argued that the EU should not reward the Prime Minister with blind faith. They are rightfully suspicious of whether the proposals — some yet to be published in detail — will curtail corruption and strengthen democracy. Similarly, many from the opposition are sceptical that the EU will force an actual transformation of the administration’s governance. They claim that the EU’s demands fall short of what is necessary to rebuild Hungary’s derided democracy.

Hungary is still waiting for the Commission to approve its pandemic recovery plan– around 5.8 billion euros in EU money. Futile bargaining with Hungary over the allotment of 14.9 billion euros in grants and loans as part of a COVID Recovery Fund leave Budapest short of cash, about 8.5% of the country’s GDP– a big blow for a small country.

A hefty price will be paid if he cannot pull his act together in time and make a swift “Truss-ian” u-turn on his derision of democracy. Regarding Budapest’s foreign policy toward Ukraine, it is safe to assume Hungary does not love its neighbour as it loves itself.

Budapest is not all too happy with the EU’s measures. Last year, Hungarian Finance Minister Mihaly Varga threatened that if the EU continues with its criticism, Hungary may re-evaluate its membership at the end of this decade, when it is expected to become a net contributor to the bloc’s budget.

Although, Orban has said he intends for Hungary to stay a member of the EU. The country’s export-oriented economy heavily relies on the free movement of goods and services within the bloc. Additionally, the EU (as well as the NATO military alliance) has provided security throughout the turbulent conflict in neighbouring Ukraine. Nevertheless, it is challenging to see Orban willingly undoing the legal changes of the past decade and embarking on a campaign against the corruption that benefits him, the Fidesz Party and Hungarian social elites.

Despite taking advantage of EU security, the head of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, Peter Szijjarto, has said he did not vote to create an EU training mission for the Ukrainian military. Szijjarto took advantage of the constructive stay, arguing that Hungary does not prevent the launch of such a mission but will not partake in it.

Hungary maintained a relatively neutral stance over the Russia-Ukraine war near its borders. As EU countries continually sanctioned Russia, Orbán slammed the approach, saying in September that the EU should dump its sanctions. Earlier this year, he blamed the sanctions for the EU's energy-supply crisis.

Orban has received criticism from Ukraine, the EU and the US over his muted response to Vladimir Putin’s brutal aggressions. Orban and Putin have historically been allies. In April, two months after the invasion began, he referred to Volodymyr Zelenskyy as one of his "opponents". It can be argued that Orban’s unwillingness to take a strong stance against Putin and train Ukrainian soldiers is a calculated move against a Russian threat due to Hungary’s proximity to the war. Nonetheless, his historical amicability with Putin, disdain for Zelenskyy and friction with the EU paint an uglier picture.

As the deadline for the Commission’s verdicts rolls around, EU officials will look for the Commission’s report on Orban’s initiatives to undo his autocratic missteps. A hefty price will be paid if he cannot pull his act together in time and make a swift “Truss-ian” u-turn on his derision of democracy. Regarding Budapest’s foreign policy toward Ukraine, it is safe to assume Hungary does not love its neighbour as it loves itself.

Image: Flickr/ szpattila



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