The Problem With Hungary

Viktor Orbán and the EU

The European Commission announced on Wednesday that it will take action against Hungary’s Orwellian-titled ‘Sovereignty’ Law.

German tanks, Putin's politics: Viktor Orbán.

Approved by parliament in December, the legislation creates an “office of sovereignty protection” to be run by a loyalist of the country’s governing Fidesz party.

The new law allows Viktor Orbán’s government to engage in extrajudicial scrutiny of any person or organisation active in Hungarian public life.

For Orbán’s regime, the legislation is entirely self-serving, as it’s an end-of-democracy tool.

It’s the sort of law enacted by people and parties who don’t expect anyone else to be wielding power for the foreseeable future.

That Hungary is currently democratically challenged was already very much in evidence.

Nearly €22 billion in Cohesion funds and payments from the Recovery and Resilience Fund meant for Hungary are frozen due to the government’s failure to strengthen judicial independence and reduce political interference in the courts.

More worryingly, Viktor Orbán was only recently convinced to rescind his threat to veto €50 billion in EU aid to Ukraine.

The concession made to get him onside is more reporting and consultation on aid to Ukraine over the next two years.

But the more crucial bit is the clause added to the agreement calling for “fair, impartial, and fact-based” decision-making in EU funding to the various European capitals.

If that sounds like authorisation to blackmail, it is. Orbán doubtless hoped it would lead to the eventual unfreezing of funds still being withheld from Hungary.

Yet only days later, this concession seems all but void in light of the European Commission’s announcement of its opposition to the Sovereignty Law.

Viktor Orbán has always been a square peg in the EU.

Temperamentally and politically, he is much more at home with Vladimir Putin than he is with Pedro Sánchez.

In addition to Fidesz’s commitment to “managed democracy”, the Hungarian strongman has shown a willingness to rehabilitate Antisemitism as part of his political programme.

In a sign of how far European politics have become unrecognisable, Orbán’s Judeophobia has not prevented him from having close relations with Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu.

But it doesn’t take much imagination to see why this friendship makes sense. Both Orbán and Netanyahu believe that democracy is more of an exception than a rule.

Netanyahu’s contentious “judicial reform” was not as immediately and obviously pernicious as Orbán’s sovereignty office, but both projects share a desire to rule without interference.

It’s unclear whether Orbán is a convinced Antisemite or someone for whom it’s just a tool. In practice, the distinction is irrelevant.

Orbán’s intimacy with Netanyahu is predicated on Bibi being the kind of Jew favoured by fascists: the kind who hates Muslims and lives abroad.

Viktor Orbán is less enthusiastic about Jews “masquerading” as Hungarians and stirring the gullible to disruptive insistence on the values of democracy, IE, George Soros.

For the Jewish comedian able to raise far greater capital from Washington and Brussels, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Orbán has even less sympathy.

To underline this, upon caving into Commission pressure over unfreezing funding for Ukraine, Orbán told the press that Hungarians wouldn’t be subsidising the war.

Once again, it’s hard to know whether Viktor Orbán really believes this or whether he is merely attempting to mask reality by denying it.

In any case, no one believes him except, perhaps, Hungarians. For the rest of the world, particularly Ukrainians, Orbán has spent the war sucking up to Moscow.

For example, this week, Fidesz’s deputies boycotted en masse an emergency session of the Hungarian parliament called to vote on Sweden’s accession to NATO.

The question of NATO expansion is a fraught one, and legitimate questions must be asked about its continued relevance and the wisdom of expanding it.

But Orbán’s opposition has little or nothing to do with such considerations.

Like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Viktor Orbán’s concerns stem from the willingness of Sweden’s government to allow criticism of regimes like his.

Trying to rationalise Hungary’s refusal, European press repeated a request by Orbán’s chief of staff for Swedish officials to visit Budapest and apologise.

It remains to be seen whether the European Commission and NATO leadership’s patience with Hungary will soon be exhausted.

It’s also unclear exactly what that would mean if it did.

For several years now, Orbán has been involved in a king’s gambit in which he makes concessions to Brussels while growing closer to the Kremlin.

Politically, Hungary is a better fit for the Russian camp. The problem is that the Kremlin doesn’t have the EU’s money, so Viktor Orbán tries to have it both ways.

The Hungarian premier hopes the European Union will eventually turn away from the US and leave him alone. The feared populist surge in the bloc’s June elections will be critical.

The problem is that the war in Ukraine has complicated that turn, pressuring Hungary back towards Washington and war with Moscow. NATO and Brussels drive the pressure.

Their only leverage is economic. Hence, recurring EU freezes of funds owed to Budapest. Germany, Hungary’s biggest weapons supplier, could freeze arms deals, too, but desists.

Curiously, Berlin has yet to pursue the latter option, as German defence concerns have recently struck major deals to produce tanks and armoured fighting vehicles in the country.

This is the danger of populist colonisation of democratic polities: Fidesz is so tightly imbricated in the Hungarian state that it’s impossible to punish them without punishing Hungary as a whole.

If Rheinmetall, for example, refused to deliver parts to assemble Hungarian-licensed K-51 tanks, Viktor Orbán could claim Germany was trying to topple him and hurt the economy.

And therein lies the rub.

From Orbán’s perspective, the consequences of losing grip on power are worse than any other plague that could be visited on Fidesz (or on Hungary more generally).

The issue is not that Fidesz has a lock on power in the country. The problem is that Orbán and his party have taken steps to ensure this remains the case regardless of public will.

The European Union has numerous legitimacy problems that don’t help. The most significant is that the bloc has a large democratic deficit that invites populist responses like illiberalism.

As Yanis Varoufakis has repeatedly pointed out, a severe imbalance between a too-powerful executive and a less-powerful parliament undermines the EU’s democratic cred.

Voting in European elections, such as the forthcoming June poll, certainly matters, but it is of far less consequence than voting in member state elections. Hence, Hungarian autocracy.

Compounding this is a need for more unequivocal leadership in common values at EU level. The result is an ideological vacuum in which far-right politics have been allowed to thrive.

Under current circumstances, the outcome of this lack is unfortunate, as Viktor Orbán is repeatedly allowed to flout the political norms of the European Union.

If a similar regime came to power in one of the wealthier member states (an AfD-led government in Germany, for example), the result could be catastrophic and, conceivably, permanent.

Photograph courtesy of Number 10. All rights reserved.