How the EU allowed Hungary to become an illiberal model

Orban has spent the past decade steadily building his
“illiberal state,” as he proudly calls Hungary, with the help of lavish EU
funding. Even as his project widened fissures in the bloc, his fellow national
leaders mostly looked the other way, committed to staying out of one another’s

But now Orban’s defiance and intransigence has had an
important, if unintended, effect: serving as a catalyst for an often-sluggish
EU system to act to safeguard the democratic principles that are the foundation
of the bloc.

Early this year, the European Court of Justice will
issue a landmark decision on whether the union has the authority to make its
funds to member states conditional on meeting the bloc’s core values. Doing so
would allow Brussels to deny billions of euros to countries that violate those

The bloc has consistently worked on political
consensus among national leaders. But Orban has pushed Brussels toward a
threshold it had long avoided: making membership subject to financial
punishments, not merely political ones.

The new frontier could help solve an old problem —
what to do about bad actors in its ranks — while creating new ones. Not least,
it could invite the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, to
exercise a new level of interference in the affairs of member states.

How Orban has forced the EU to such a juncture, and
why it seemed helpless to stop him for so long, says much about the bloc’s
founding assumptions and why it has stumbled in the face of populist and
nationalist challenges.

Interviews with more than a dozen current and former
European officials show how sentiments toward Orban and his illiberal project
evolved from complacency and incomprehension to a recognition that he had
become a serious internal threat — despite Hungary’s having fewer people than
Paris and a language so esoteric that it bears no relationship to those of its

The willful neglect was encapsulated neatly in 2015 at
a meeting, when Jean-Claude Juncker, then the European Commission’s president,
saw Orban arriving and said, “The dictator is coming,” before greeting him with
“dictator,” and giving him a friendly pat on the face.

No one in power wanted to confront Orban over issues
like rule of law and corruption — especially not his fellow national leaders,
who each have a seat on the powerful European Council.

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“At the council myself I felt the reluctance of
Orban’s peers to deal with these kind of issues,” said Luuk van Middelaar, an
aide to Herman Van Rompuy when he was council president. He added that the
council was “like a club, where Viktor is just one of them — and they are
political animals, and they respect each other for the simple fact of having
won an election.”

The leaders “prefer not to deal with hot potatoes or
each other’s business when they can avoid it,” van Middelaar said.

Orban faces new elections this spring against a
formally united but extremely diverse set of opposition parties. But he has
become a model for the politics of identity and religion, not just in Poland
but in the United States, as well.

On Monday, former President Donald Trump endorsed
Orban for reelection, pledging “complete support.” Orban was an early supporter
of Trump, endorsing him in the summer of 2016 and again in 2020. Orban said
Trump was “probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s OK.”

Some European lawmakers recognised early on that Orban
was trampling on democratic norms but were stymied by national leaders,
particularly those from the European People’s Party, the powerful centre-right
political grouping that has dominated the European Parliament for the past

Among those conservatives who protected Orban was
Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany at the time. German companies had
major investments in Hungary, and Merkel saw the Hungarian leader as a
political ally in Brussels. One prominent member of the European People’s Party
said Merkel and her aides brushed off complaints about Orban, saying that he
could be difficult, but that it was important to keep him in the family.

“The biggest failing — the one that we are still
paying the price for today — is the European Council,” said Rui Tavares, a
former European legislator who helped write a report on Hungary’s violations
adopted in 2013. “The European Council did nothing.”

When Orban proposed — and later introduced — a new
constitution that violated European principles, Didier Reynders, then Belgium’s
minister of foreign and European affairs, said he tried to raise the problem in
a meeting with EU leaders in 2011 but was shut down.

“The reaction was that this is not an issue for the
member states,” said Reynders, who is now the EU commissioner for justice,
adding that “maybe the commission, maybe the court” should deal with it.

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“But now it’s a permanent discussion,” he said.

Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian analyst of Europe, said
Orban was careful for several years after his election in 2010 “not to cross
Brussels’ red lines but to dance along them in what he called ‘the peacock

Krastev said many European leaders assumed that the
nations that joined the bloc in 2004 would be grateful, relatively compliant
partners and miscalculated how “countries like Hungary, Poland and the Czech
Republic felt later that you have to assert your own identity and reject
Brussels to differing degrees.”

Orban’s party adopted the new constitution and a new
media law that curbed press freedom. It overhauled the country’s justice
system, removed the head of its Supreme Court and created an office to oversee
the courts led by the wife of a prominent member of the governing party,
Fidesz. Election laws were changed to favour the party.

External factors strengthened Orban as well, including
in 2015 when a record number of migrants made their way to Europe and when the
right-wing Law and Justice party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski came to power in Poland.
He suddenly had an ally there, and his tough stance against migrants won him
support elsewhere, too.

“What liberated Orban was 2015 and the migration
crisis,” said Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign
Relations. “He was suddenly standing for more than Hungary but for wider issues
of migration, with support in Germany and Austria and the other Central European
states, and that gave him power.”

A sharper inflection point came in May 2018 at a
meeting between Orban and the leaders of the European People’s Party: Joseph
Daul, the party president, and Manfred Weber, the German Christian Democrat who
ran Parliament.

They warned him that his party risked being expelled
from the parliamentary grouping. Fresh from another electoral victory the month
before, Orban “felt he was on steroids” and struck back, according to an
official who was immediately briefed about the meeting.

“If you try to kick me out, I’ll destroy you,” Orban
said, according to the official.

It would take 10 months before Fidesz would be
suspended. Two years after that, in March, Orban quit the conservative alliance
when it became clear that it was going to oust his party.

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Weber still regrets the loss of Fidesz. “On one level,
it is a relief,” he said. “But Orban leaving is not a victory, but a defeat” in
the effort to hold the centre-right together as “a broad people’s party.”

It has helped Orban that the EU has few and
ineffective instruments for punishing a backsliding nation. Even the Lisbon
Treaty, which gave enhanced powers to the European Parliament, has essentially
one unusable tool: Article 7, which can remove a country’s voting rights, but
only if passed by unanimity.

In 2017, Frans Timmermans, then the European
Commission first vice president responsible for the rule of law, initiated the
article against Poland. The European Parliament did the same against Hungary in

But both measures inevitably stalled because the two
countries protect each other.

The treaty also allows the commission to bring
infringement procedures — legal charges — against member states for violating
EU law. But the process is slow, involving letters and responses and appeals,
and final decisions are up to the European Court of Justice. Most cases are
settled before reaching the court.

But according to studies by R Daniel Kelemen of
Rutgers University and Tommaso Pavone of the University of Oslo, the commission
sharply reduced infringement cases after the addition of new member states in
2004. José Manuel Barroso, a former commission president, “bought into this to
work more cooperatively with governments and not just sue them,” Kelemen said.
Barroso declined to comment.

Attitudes have shifted. With taxpayer money at stake,
the next seven-year budget in the balance and the disregard for shared values
shown by Orban and Kaczynski on leaders’ minds, Brussels may have finally found
a useful tool to affect domestic politics, with a mix of lawsuits charging
infringement of European treaties combined with severe financial consequences.

A marker has finally been laid down, Reynders said.

The big moment comes this month, when the European
Court of Justice issues its ruling.

If Hungary and Poland lose the case, as expected, it
is unclear what will happen if both countries simply refuse to comply. The EU
will be thrust deeper into unknown territory.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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