The European Union has had enough of funding the crony capitalism of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. On 18 September, Johannes Hahn, the European commissioner for budget and administration, proposed withholding up to €7.5 billion of funding from the country. The EU will only release the money if Hungary undertakes a series of anti-corruption reforms.
The commission has provided fair, but bureaucratic and legalistic, expectations for Hungary, which it must meet in the next three months. The reforms include: the rollout of an electronic public procurement system and training for small, medium, and micro enterprises on public procurement practices; the modification of the country’s criminal code to allow judicial review of prosecutorial decisions; and the establishment of a new “Office of Integrity”.
Orban’s chief negotiator, Tibor Navrasics, responded with surprising optimism: Hungary would meet all its commitments, and not a single euro will be lost. Despite this, it would be naive to think that Hungary is moving towards a more democratic outlook – far from it. In fact, Orban, the self-defined “streetfighter”, will quickly be able to meet the commission’s demands – and not only that, mould them to serve his own purposes.
A useful way to consider Orbanism is that everything is legal, but nothing is democratic. So, the very essence of Orban’s illiberal regime is that the democratic institutions (for example, the constitutional court and separation of powers) formally exist, but their actual functioning follows only his will. And, given that his re-election this year marked his fourth consecutive constitutional majority, he has had plenty of time to hone his technique.
Take the most important reform in the commission’s package: the Office of Integrity. This, in principle, will be fully independent – but the Hungarian budget will cover the costs of its operation. Arrangements such as these are powerful weapons in Orban’s hands. In this case, the president of the Hungarian State Audit Office (a loyal cadre of Orban’s Fidesz party) will appoint the head of the new office. This head can in turn initiate proceedings before the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPP) – but Hungary is not a member of the EPP and the prosecutor has no jurisdiction to act in the country. Perhaps the commission had thought of this – so an anti-corruption working group will operate alongside the office, comprising equal parts government and NGO representatives. But, of course, Fidesz has set up plenty of NGOs and lavished them with subsidies while stifling genuine organisations. The results could be predictable enough – and may not do the EU’s coffers much good.
The point is that, although the commission’s requirements are well intentioned, simply setting up the institutions and formal structures is not enough. The EU will need to see whether the way in which Fidesz operates these structures actually points to a reverse of democratic backsliding. More bluntly, Hahn’s deadline of 19 November is reasonable – but not if it refers to 2022. The commission should allow a longer period of one or two years to judge whether the changes are for real, or if Orban is yet again buying time with formal tricks.
And time is everything for Orban right now. He is adopting the shameful position of Vladimir Putin’s last ally in the EU because he calculates that Russia will win the war. His delusion is clear in Fidesz’s proposal on 23 September to initiate a “national consultation” against EU sanctions on Russia. Now, the “national consultation” is one of Orban’s great ingenuities: all Hungarian addresses receive a set of biased questions designed to elicit the ‘correct’ response. For instance, a classic of the genre from 2015 read: “Do you agree with the Hungarian government that instead of immigration, we need to support Hungarian families and unborn Hungarian children?” These consultations are in no way representative, but the polling allows the populist Orban to claim that he is merely responding to the ‘national will’. So, whatever the wording of the so-called consultations on sanctions, the intention is unmistakable: to disrupt EU policy in the interests of Russia.
This fits with the strategic considerations that Orban has repeatedly stated this summer. That is, by 2030, the Visegrad countries will be net contributors to the EU, at which point they should rethink their membership. Although Orban may well find himself alone on that last point, the EU should note that he is likely not even entertaining the idea of a democratic future for Hungary and long-term reforms.
EU leaders should therefore ignore Navrasics’s careful legalese. Instead, they should only consider Orban’s actions and power politics. Tellingly, Fidesz’s appeasement – anti-war as a concept but not anti-Russia – ‘pacifist’ stance appears in the party’s Facebook posts with the slogan “We will fight”. If the EU too learns to speak the language of power and money, which are the only two things Orban understands, he will come across as a patsy. But if the union caves in to Orban, as it has so many times over the last 12 years, it will raise serious questions of credibility about itself.
Tibor Dessewffy is the president of DEMOS Hungary and an ECFR council member.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.