Twelve years of Orban: How the EU has failed to rein in Hungary's democratic backsliding

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By Alice Tidey
Viktor Orban, Hungary's nationalist Prime Minister delivers his annual state of the nation speech at the Varkert Bazaar conference hall, in Budapest, Hungary, Feb 12, 2022.
Viktor Orban, Hungary's nationalist Prime Minister delivers his annual state of the nation speech at the Varkert Bazaar conference hall, in Budapest, Hungary, Feb 12, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Anna Szilagyi

Viktor Orban, the ultra-conservative Hungarian Prime Minister on the cusp of securing a fourth consecutive term, has built his career on bashing the European Union and has mostly gotten away with it.

Yet, his influence on the bloc and its institutions is chequered at best.

Orban, 58, now the EU's longest-serving leader could on Sunday renew his time at the helm of the eastern country for another four years. His nationalist-populist party, Fidesz, currently has a slight lead over the opposition, which banded together to present a single candidate for the top job and in most constituencies.

His campaign was, as is now usual, filled with attacks against Brussels — its "imperialist tantrums" and "pro-immigrant bureaucrats" — and thin allusions to a possible Huxit.

For years now, Orban has implemented reforms of the judiciary, media and civil society he knew would put him on a collision course with Brussels all while pocketing EU money. Through it all, he cast himself as the protector of traditional — read Christian — European values and promoted an "illiberal democracy" agenda, which once garnered him the moniker "the dictator" by former Commission Chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

What this has revealed is that EU institutions are largely unable — or unwilling — to sanction such authoritarian backsliding.

"This anti-Brussels rhetoric is around almost since he took over power and it became more violent after each election," Zsolt Enyedi, a professor and senior researcher at the Central European University's Democracy Institute, told Euronews.

"European Union institutions responded to this barrage of attacks after a while, but they let Orban get away with them for many, many years. Orban was shielded by (former German Chancellor Angela) Merkel and by the European People's Party," he added.

All EU institutions, however, shouldn't be painted with the same brush.

Fidesz isolated in European Parliament

"The European parliament has emerged as a sort of conscience of the EU," Daniel Hegedus, a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank, said.

MEPs triggered Article 7 proceedings -- calling for the suspension of certain rights -- against Hungary and Poland in September 2018 over rule of law concerns. They have also pushed for the creation of a rule of law mechanism to financially sanction member states seen as backsliding.

Fidesz is now also out of the European People's Party (EPP) group in the parliament, having chosen to leave in March 2021 right before it could get expelled — the party had been suspended from the EPP in 2019. The centre-right EPP was sharply criticised for how long it took them to condemn Orban and Fidesz's domestic policies and to proceed with a possible expulsion course.

"There were different opinions on whether we get them straight inside with internal discussions or should we just kick them out. More or less everybody agreed that the policy line of Fidesz was not right but how to correct this was very much a thing," an EPP insider told Euronews.

"The question before Orban was expelled from the EPP was would Fidesz strengthen the populist side? Would he form a separatist group in the parliament?" the source added.

If that was indeed the plan for Orban, then it backfired.

"The populists are split. They are even more split than they were at the beginning of this term. So there is no such voice as a big united anti-European front," the insider added. "Also as Fidesz is not included in any other group, they are independent, they don't have much to say inside of Parliament, their voice is now practically not heard."

Parliament now more united

Additionally, the constant attacks on the EU and the reforms it undertook seemed to have boosted MEPs' resolve to protect the bloc as a liberal beacon.

"In my view, the Hungarian Fidesz delegation in the European Parliament, and Fidesz when it was in the EPP, strengthened the topics of rule of law, democracy, human rights and women's rights in the EP as a whole and also in the EPP group. This was precisely because Fidesz challenged all of these values so strongly," Sirpa Pietikainen, a Finnish EPP MEP, told Euronews.

"Without the challenging from Fidesz of these values, it could even be that we would now have a less defined and less united position on rule of law, human rights violations or gender equality issues. Sometimes the paradox is that by challenging something you end up strengthening the principle you challenge. A bit like Putin's actions in Ukraine right now," she argued.

But while MEPs have triggered Article 7 and have now pushed for the use of the new rule of law mechanism against Hungary, nothing much has happened. Action is out of their hands.

Commission 'failed tests'

The Commission, which acts as the guardian of the treaties and defender of EU legislation, has launched and won multiple court cases against Budapest over changes in the Hungarian Constitution, the lowering of the retirement age for judges, the crackdown on NGOs and the treatment of migrants and refugees.

Yet, not much has changed.

"This was far too little, so it didn't make much difference on the ground. These court decisions almost always go against Hungary and some of the other violators of fundamental norms of liberal democracy but they are not respected, and the Commission doesn't do much about that," Enyedi said.

For Hegedus, "the Commission failed these tests" launched by the parliament and court decisions, and with "the rule of law issue practically off the table" due to the Russian aggression on Ukraine, Orban knows he "doesn't need to fear the Commission or sanctions".

Council's need for compromise

The European Council, i.e. leaders of member states, have been equally weak in their ability to rein in Orban and Fidesz, the two experts said.

"The EU has many other challenges and you do need the support of Hungary's prime minister for tackling these challenges, so they have to make various compromises. The rule of law mechanism keeps being postponed and it has been watered down anyway and only applies to some very, very specific violations of rule of law and not a general drift towards authoritarian rule," Enyedi explained.

Yet even though the Council — especially Poland which has similarly drawn the ire of Brussels — largely protects Orban from MEPs' wrath, leaders are still not fooled.

Orban's veiled references to a Huxit are not seen as credible by his fellow heads of state who are still reeling from the consequences of the UK's departure from the union.

"The whole operation of the Orban regime -- which is built on the strategic corruption and abuse of EU funds --, this political system is not operational outside of the European Union," Hegedus explained.

"The Hungarian government did a lot on its multilateral foreign policy and close ties with Russia and China to demonstrate for the EU institutions that it has other strategic options but these strategic options are not genuine. Neither Russia, nor China, would be ready to provide that sort of financial transfer for Hungary which amounts to 3-4% of its annual GDP. So no, I think leaving the European Union is not an option," he added.

'Enlargement fatigue'

Orban's shift toward a semi-authoritarian regime may have also impacted the bloc's enlargement — unchanged since the accession of Croatia in 2013. The Hungarian leader has been developing closer ties with leaders in the Western Balkans, where many countries hope one day to become member states, but where democratic and rule of law standards are spotty.

"I think the democratic demise in Central Europe, and especially in Hungary and Poland, significantly contributed to enlargement fatigue in some member states," Hegedus said.

For Enyedi, "Hungary is an example of how accession of a new country can go wrong."

"The very strong ties between (Serbian President Aleksandar) Vučić and Orban mean that if Serbia was accepted, you know, the Orban bloc will get stronger and nobody wants that. So in that sense, I think Serbia's accession prospects are directly hurt by this strong cooperation between the leaders of the two countries," he added.

As for Orban's hope of exporting its "illiberal democracy" model to other member states, this too has largely stalled, mostly because, as is the case in the European Parliament, right-wing populist parties across the bloc do not actually align on many issues.

Even the Visegroup group, comprising the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, has many cracks and these are widening because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine with Warsaw resolutely anti-Russia while Orban has been much more conciliatory.

"He put a lot of energy into supporting forces that could undermine liberal democracy in Europe," Enyedi stressed, including "directly interfering with domestic politics" in non-EU neighbouring countries or in fellow member states — a Hungarian bank with close ties to him provided a €10.7 million loan to French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen to fund her campaign.

"He has been trying to build an authoritarian right-wing alliance for a long time, which was not successful, and actually now, the prospects are not very good," he concluded.