Opinion – The problem with Hungary

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The European Parliament statement that Hungary is no longer formally a democracy should come as no surprise to those who have witnessed Budapest’s democratic backsliding. According to the European Parliament report, Hungary should be classified as a “hybrid regime of electoral autocracy” and as a state where European values ​​are constantly under threat. Along the same lines, the EU has offers suspending €7.5 billion in funding to Hungary due to corruption concerns and democratic backsliding. Hungary is increasingly becoming an outcast within the EU and aligning itself more closely with Russia, Turkey and far-right figures in the US than with its other member states.

The case of Hungary clearly shows that EU membership does not guarantee democracy despite the fact that candidates for EU membership have to go through a rigorous process of building democratic credentials known as Copenhagen criteria. Ukraine, Moldova and other Balkan states concerned about corruption and the influence of outside powers like Russia are currently official candidates for EU membership. As such, Hungary’s censorship is an alarming wake-up call for EU enlargement and for spreading its own values ​​in the future.

Viktor Orban’s Hungary, as well as Poland under the Law and Justice Party, are states where the role of the media, the judiciary and academia is increasingly politicized, and where the rights of migrants, the community LGBTQ and women are often pushed back. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Orban used the state of emergency to help consolidate his power, and Hungary’s close alliance with Russia, including his willingness to continue paying for Russian gas in rubles, has deteriorated relations with the rest of the EU.

Under Orban, Hungary gained enormously from its position in the EU and Budapest became a kingmaker for populist movements not only across the continent but in the United States. Orban has become more of an international symbol than a European symbol, as he fights less for Europe and more against the perceived wave of a corrosive and cosmopolitan liberalism that has global effects. While this threatens Orban’s definition of European values, it also threatens a traditional, white Christian way of life that is just as palpable with some voting blocs in America’s swing states as it is in the heartland of Europe.

Hungary clearly belongs to Europe, but it does not have to belong to the EU if its values ​​do not match those of other member states. After living under communism for decades, Hungary chose to be part of an enlarged and democratic EU in order to prosper alongside its peers on the continent. However, EU membership is a privilege, not a right, just as the common European experience of borderless travel and freedom of movement is the privileged outcome of long-time warring states that have chosen to pool their sovereignty and fight for their common future. Orban does not believe in fighting for Europe’s common future as envisioned in the many EU treaties, and no alliance is too unreasonable for him if it further serves his ideological agenda. Orban has more to gain by aligning himself with neo-imperial autocrats like Putin and Erdogan on the periphery of Europe than with liberal reformers and even populist eurosceptics in neighboring EU states.

For Orban, the challenge will be to choose whether his mission is too big for Europe, or whether he still needs Europe and the trappings of its institutions and alliances to move forward. As the year progresses, events outside Hungary in Ukraine, Russia and Italy could do more to shape Orban’s strategy than anything happening domestically. Even if Italy wins a far-right leader in its September 25 election, a government led by Giorgia Meloni is expected take a tough stance on Russia and work with NATO and the EU. Further Ukrainian gains in its counter-offensive could lead France and Germany to increase their military aid, and Italy, under a far-right government, could continue to support sanctions against Russia and strive to reduce its dependence on Russian gas. If that happened, Hungary would have little leverage to continue its pro-Kremlin course and Orban would likely be forced to realistically consider the viability of maintaining such close ties with Moscow.

Autocrats and illiberal figures like Orban and Putin always care about their image and how they are perceived in the world. Further isolating Orban in Europe could only enhance his appeal abroad and as a figurehead of grievance-based populist-nationalist movements. However, a Ukrainian victory would be a major symbolic boost for democracy in the global fight against authoritarianism. This victory will be largely due to the EU and the importance of its mission for those in Ukraine who are struggling to distance themselves from Russia in order to build a more prosperous future.

If the EU, and therefore democracy, continues to have the upper hand, Budapest will have a hard time not finding a reason to fall in line. Hungary’s isolation may be necessary in the short term, but Budapest must not be prevented from contributing in good faith to European issues. There are many Hungarian citizens who do not subscribe to Orban’s ideology but are unable to hold on to effective political or media outlets to voice their concerns. As Ukraine progresses towards EU membership, Brussels would be wise to look to Hungary as well to ensure that its civil society can effectively transition into the post-Orban era. It will be important to maintain support for the Democrats in Hungary, while recognizing the pernicious threat of illiberal figures who are willing to hijack their agenda.

Brussels will likely develop a strong backbone if events in Ukraine continue on their current course, prompting Orban and his supporters to determine which European values ​​are really worth fighting for.

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