Better late than never: How the EU should respond to Orbán’s illiberalism

The European Union must now belatedly press ahead with both legal and political procedures to halt Hungary’s illiberal course.

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The ink has barely dried on Hungary’s controversial education amendment, yet Viktor Orbán’s government already has its next target in sight – civil society organizations. As with the higher education bill, the new amendment targets institutions standing up for democratic values and principles, which have come under increasing pressure ever since Orbán’s infamous illiberal democracy speech in 2014.

Freedom House went so far as to downgrade Hungary to a “semi-consolidated democracy” in 2015, illustrating the extent to which democracy itself is under threat in the central European republic. Yet the European Union is only belatedly to come to terms with this reality.

The recent legislative changes are not the only issues causing concern in Brussels, but they are illustrative of the government’s approach toward dissenting voices. According to the government, the amendments to the higher education law serve to regulate the status of foreign universities and colleges while ensuring the quality of education they provide. In total 28 institutions are affected, but none more so than the Central European University (CEU), created by Hungarian-born billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. Despite the government arguing that CEU is not the target, the smear campaign against the university in pro-government media and by representatives of the ruling party suggests otherwise.

Civil society organizations, especially human rights defenders and watchdogs, are now being similarly targeted by a government campaign claiming that they serve foreign interests. The proposed legislative amendments require that NGOs receiving more than 7.2 million HUF (cca. 23,000 EUR) from abroad per year register themselves as “organizations receiving foreign funding”. They would also be required to put this disclaimer on their website and publications, and would face fines and potentially dissolution if they fail to do so. While the proposal is said to be necessary for reasons of national security and increased transparency, NGOs already publish information about their finances under existing legislation. Thus the changes serve only to label them, creating a worrying comparison with Russia’s ‘foreign agent’ law.

Raising further concerns about respect for human rights, the government has continued to harden legislation concerning asylum seekers and has launched a ‘national consultation’ titled “Let’s Stop Brussels!” Heavily biased questions claim, for example, that “Brussels” wants to force Hungary to allow illegal immigrants into the country. These developments make it reasonable to ask whether the Hungarian government still aspires to EU values of democracy, or rather seeks to build a ‘hybrid regime’ akin to Russia or Turkey.

The sudden multitude of problematic legislative changes and the renewed anti-EU campaign have triggered alarm bells in the European Commission and the European Parliament. Four years after the Tavares report on the status of fundamental rights in Hungary was issued, Hungary is back under the microscope. On April 12, Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans noted several cases which might necessitate the launch of infringement procedures against Hungary, and announced the Commission’s intention to initiate a political dialogue with the Hungarian government, the European Parliament and the member states. However, he stopped short of any suggestion that Article 7 should be invoked against Hungary.

While critics of the Hungarian government might have expected more, calling for a political dialogue is significant. It suggests a shift in the Commission’s approach; that is, a willingness to begin addressing the broader picture beyond the letter of the law.

The Hungarian government has traditionally been willing to engage in discussions on legislation with the Commission, but it has restricted dialogue to focus exclusively on the letter of the law. This has allowed it to make concessions to appease Brussels without altering the spirit of new legislation, as it did successfully with the notorious media law of 2011. In this sense, the Hungarian government sees the European Union as little more than a legal construct, suggesting that hopes for a fruitful political dialogue are futile.

The Commission should expect the Hungarian government to portray the dialogue itself as a political attack on Hungary – and probably frame it as retaliation for Hungary’s refusal to comply with EU decisions on refugee issues. All of this should be seen in the context of next year’s parliamentary elections, with Orban seeking to mobilise supporters against ‘enemies of the Hungarian nation’ – whether real or imaginary.

Nevertheless, this should not stop the Commission and Parliament from moving the discussion into the political domain, not least because preventing democratic backsliding through infringement procedures alone has clearly failed. Hopefully the combination of the two will prevent infringement procedures from missing the broader picture. Continued legal assessments, together with the outcomes of a serious political dialogue, could also serve as foundations for the “reasoned proposal” necessary to launch Article 7, should the need arise.

Article 7 is often referred to as the ‘nuclear option’, an unhelpful label that limits its use. This should be overcome. It is the obligation of the Commission, the Parliament and the member states to initiate Article 7, if there is reason for it, and initiate it even if it might be blocked.

The latest wave of protests against the government’s actions that started in Hungary in April gives new momentum to those defending democratic values in Hungary. The European Commission, as the guardian of the Treaties, should be at the forefront of them. Democratic backsliding in Hungary has not only created a dangerous precedent – the spill-over effects of which we already see in Poland – but letting it continue unchecked also severely undermines the normative foundations of the European Union itself, at a time when its future is already under threat.


Zsuzsanna Végh is Researcher at the European University Viadrina, and Associate Researcher at ECFR. The views expressed here are those of the author.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


European University Viadrina

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