Orbán outlines Hungary’s illiberal future: Why is the EU still silent?

Questions around democracy in Hungary have been hanging in the air since Fidesz came to power in 2010, left mostly unanswered by the EU. This time, in a speech made at a retreat for ethnic Hungarian leaders in Romania, Victor Orbán made it very clear that he has been consciously moving Hungary away from a liberal democracy to an illiberal state ‘like Russia.’ In his view,

“A democracy does not necessarily have to be liberal. Just because a state is not liberal, it can still be a democracy. And in fact we also had to and did state that societies that are built on the state organisation principle of liberal democracy will probably be incapable of maintaining their global competitiveness in the upcoming decades and will instead probably be scaled down unless they are capable of changing themselves significantly.”

Having been challenged by and losing to the European Court of Justice numerous times for various constitutional infringements, it again begs the question of complacency at the European Commission.

Since 2010, Orbán’s party, Fidesz, has fundamentally altered the constitution without engaging opposition parties to grant the party leader overwhelming and unchecked power. Orbán has wasted no time in snapping control away from previously independent institutions, filling them with political allies, censoring the media and curbing the power of the independent judiciary to radically centralise his political authority. This April, Fidesz won a second term where 45% of the vote translated into a two-thirds majority in parliament due to the changes to electoral laws made during his first term. These changes made it appear as though Hungary was having a free and fair election, when in fact, Fidesz had no real possibility of losing.

Whereas at one point, the Fidesz government insisted that it was still a democracy, in his speech last week, Orbán left no doubts that he is distancing himself and his country away from liberal democracy and the core values of the EU. Despite the fact that Hungary relies on Structural Funds to finance almost all of its infrastructure projects, his speech had a usual dose of anti-EU ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘good’ vs ‘evil’ rhetoric. “These people – and there are hundreds of them – whose job it is to supervise the economic development and social development funding that Hungary has a right to – not that it is awarded but which it has a right to, to which it has a contractual right – receive their salaries directly from the European Union.” Of course individuals working for the EU would be paid by the EU. And though he mentions that Hungary has a right to these funds, he does not acknowledge the conditions required of member states to comply with the EU’s fundamental values.

Such claims about reorganising the state “based on national interests” and that conflicts that come underway from the EU “go hand in hand with the reconstruction of the state and the process of self-definition” help drum up anti-EU, nationalistic sentiments to consolidate his power.

Furthermore, Fidesz made further efforts to censor the media last month by introducing a new tax in parliament in just a few days, with no debate or consultation, that would drive out German broadcaster RTL. Neelie Kroes, vice president of the European Commission leading on the EU’s digital agenda, accused the Hungarian government of wanting to remove a neutral, foreign broadcaster from Hungary, which would “wipe out the democratic safeguards, and see off a perceived challenge to its power.” Once again, a Hungarian law contradicts EU law, as the freedom of establishment is a core principle of the single market. Though Commissioner Kroes points out that this tax is against the EU’s values, and that criticisms against Hungary come from other parties as well, including the Council of Europe, they remain unaddressed.

Orbán finished his speech by saying,

“In view of the fact that the current world order is not particularly to our taste, I think we would do better to feel that the era of anything can happen that stands before us, although it bears with it uncertainty according to many and could even mean trouble, contains at least as many chances and opportunities for the Hungarian nation… It could easily be the case that, since anything can happen, our time will come.”

How far will the EU let Orbán go?

Note: For those interested, Kim Lane Scheppele of Princeton University has been perhaps the loudest critic of Hungary’s (un)constitutional developments. Read her criticisms here, here, here, and here (I could go on… there’s a news page on Princeton’s website listing all of her articles and interviews on the topic).

Image source: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

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