Europe is clueless about Orbán, and he wants to change the EU in his own image
The fourth Orbán government will push Hungary towards authoritarian hybrid regimes after once again gaining a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. Fidesz’s script of restricting the space for international and foreign-funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in Hungary, limiting capital for the remaining independent media and placing pressure on the judicial branch is clearly understood in Brussels.
Despite these facts the EU cannot be considered any readier for this challenge after only achieving partial success in making an example out of Poland in terms of their rule-of-law-related concerns. The Hungarian government is going to try ironing out their own, similar conflict with the EU in the form of separate infringement procedures.
Tolerating this behaviour from Fidesz makes the systematic breach of European democratic values an openly approved act.
Orbán gives hope to the European far right
After winning another two-thirds majority, it is also hard to imagine that the Hungarian government would change its anti-West rhetoric.
Considering the fact that Orbán has been accusing the European Commission of overstepping its competences and depicting Berlin and Paris as a threat to Hungarian civilization, he will continue his destructive, anti-EU strategy of the past years to achieve two goals: undermining the legitimacy of EU institutions and stopping any further attempts by them to interfere in internal and judicial affairs.
For instance, it is a question whether the governing parties will pass the constitutional amendment they failed to do after the quota referendum that would allow Hungary to overwrite EU decisions. If this entails more than symbolic constitutional law rhetoric, and Hungary will not implement EU decisions referring to this clause, it would have serious consequences for the future of integration.
Viktor Orbán’s critics should have learned over time that the Hungarian prime minister wants to transform the EU in his own image rather than leaving it. He would turn the EU towards politics based on religious and national self-identification, where societies are ethnically homogenous, Christian and follow traditionalist values, standing in stark contrast with Western European patterns. For Viktor Orbán, restricting civil and political rights are justified in pursuit of this goal.
Although Fidesz continues to strengthen the centre-right coalition in the European Parliament thanks to the lenient approach of the European People’s Party (EPP), Orbán’s messages are resonating with an increasing number of far-right parties. The French National Front, the Austrian Freedom Party – a member of the Austrian government –, and Tomio Okamura’s Czech radical party are all among those who view Orbán as one of their main points of reference and an example to follow.
Orbán’s victory is a serious morale boost for the far-right, populist political actors gearing up for the 2019 EP-elections. Considering that one-third of today’s European Parliament consists of the representatives of Eurosceptic parties, next year’s EP-election could further bolster this trend.
The Hungarian Prime Minister is aiming to set an example for the mainstream centrist parties in the union by stressing that while his politics succeed, most of the catch-all parties have been declining in Europe. The EU and its member states are unwilling to step up their efforts against Fidesz as long as there is no alternative to its rule domestically.
One of the recurring arguments is a worse reality could come to replace Fidesz if they lost power. But Orbán’s message that Fidesz is the bastion against the advancement of the far right in Hungary should not be taken as a valid argument, given that the Hungarian government’s shift towards the far-right accelerated in 2017.
How much Europe do we need?
Despite the fact that Viktor Orbán confirmed after his two-thirds victory that he supports the “Europe of nations” concept over a federalist system, the Hungarian government has sent mixed signals on the EU’s institutional future.
It seems like Orbán, who is against losing any more sovereign control of Hungary, wants the EU to focus on the single market and to play purely an administrative role in transferring EU funds. In contrast, Fidesz has shown more and more willingness since the second half of 2017 to approve a more flexible, multi-speed integration in the fields of external border protection, enlargement, the common market and defence cooperation (PESCO).
Orbán has been unable to meaningfully influence the EU’s decision-making agenda except when it comes to the protection of the external borders and migration. The unorthodox migration policies created during the migration crisis only led to a unity among the V4 countries, and the Hungarian prime minister exploited that platform in order to extend his own influence. Orbán openly admitted that the goals of the Visegrad Group should be to create a counterpole to the European mainstream and to take over the soon-to-be-vacant role of the Eurosceptic United Kingdom.
He has only achieved partial success. Although the V4 continues to represent a joint stance on the mandatory refuge relocation mechanism, last October’s Council vote on posted workers indicated that the Visegrad Group can be divided rather easily.
The Czech Republic and Slovakia both sided with Hungary in a vote that confirmed efforts to isolate medium-sized or small member states on issues where the interests of Western and Eastern members are in conflict might become more and more frequent.
Emmanuel Macron’s proposal on the continuous extension of areas where the decisions are made with qualified majority voting would definitely favour larger member states. Macron’s other comment on the already existing multi-speed Europe could be an important indication for non-Eurozone EU members.
The French president said it was an obligation that no closed-door clubs should be established, while members with an ambition to deepen cooperation should not be held back either. This could even be good news for the Hungarian, Polish and Czech leaderships, who are all sensitive about their sovereignty but who also wish not to be locked out of joining later.
Coalition-building is not easy
Altogether, this has forced V4 member states to take on new initiatives in terms of cooperation. The debate on the post-2020 EU budget is crucial, where the V4 – as members of the “Friends of the cohesion policy” group formed in 2011 – are mainly interested in keeping cohesion funds.
Besides traditional divisions based on members’ level of development, the fact that the demand for binding the cohesion and structural funds to more and more rigorous requirements has strengthened in the Council, though it complicates things as well. (Such efforts are increasingly supported by Germany, Italy, France, the Benelux states and Scandinavian members.)
Visegrad will presumably adopt a unified stance if they want to bind the withdrawal of EU funds to rule of law-related requirements. If this was aimed at the mandatory relocation of refugees, Bulgaria, which generally promotes greater solidarity, would also join the V4.
In terms of the level of development, the “Friends of the cohesion policy” group is not a unified lobby group. In the region, the preferences of the countries diverge, some focusing on hard infrastructure (e.g., roads) such as Bulgaria and Romania and some, such as the Baltic States, focusing on financing innovation. Visegrad finds itself somewhere in between the two groups by prioritising digitalisation, R&D and competitiveness.
Additionally, there are obligations and goals related to eurozone membership: Romania and Bulgaria are self-admittedly inching closer to the currency union, while there still is no substantial discussion on adopting the euro in Hungary. The fact that there is currently no willingness to issue some kind of ultimatum to rush accession to the eurozone benefits those remaining outside of the common currency.
An impossible task without Berlin
Regardless of any diverse economic preferences, Orbán will presumably continue to count on his partners in Visegrad in the rhetorical fight entitled “less Brussels, more national sovereignty”.
Recently, this is also what Slovakian Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis urged at a joint press conference. Slovakia will take over the V4 presidency from Hungary in June, which will presumably lead to a switch to a more pragmatic agenda in contrast to the nationalist and anti-migration Hungarian presidency.
The sustainability of the illiberal Hungarian-Polish defence and defiance alliance is ensured by the Article 7 procedure ongoing against Poland and the presumably prolonged process investigating the state of the rule of law in Hungary. Orbán also views Italy and Austria as natural allies, who might agree with his anti-Brussels efforts on a case-by-case basis, but due to their eurozone membership, the fact that they are net contributors and other characteristics that differ from those of the V4, they cannot be considered good insurance.
However, nothing designates Orbán’s space for manoeuvre in the EU as much as his economic relationship with the most important partner, Germany. The Hungarian prime minister has positioned himself as the counterpole of Merkel, the last bastion of Europe’s defence.
Although bilateral diplomatic relations are frozen, CDU-CSU function as a protective umbrella for Fidesz against critics because they fear Fidesz’s expulsion from the EPP would redraw the power balance between forces in the EP, and German markets prefer predictability. German industry which is generally interested in stability should take it into account that the judiciary will presumebly restricted further. Therefore, due process would not necessarily be granted for German companies operating in Hungary after that point.
Moreover, as the German Grand Coalition agreement shows, Germany’s regional priority is Poland, due to its economic and political weight. Ironically, Kaczynski’s fate – in contrast to Orbán – hinges on the fact that the Polish governing Law and Justice party is outside of the umbrella of the largest European parliamentary group. Thus, the European People’s Party, as a defender of the rule of law in Poland, focuses on Warsaw and not Budapest.
It remains to be seen, however, if this trend is going to be reversed after a possible deal between Warsaw and Brussels. Brexit could be another contributing factor due to the fact that the exit of Great-Britain will rearrange the power balance between parliamentary groups within the EP; therefore, the Fidesz delegation might not be needed as much as before. Brexit could be another contributing factor due to the fact that the exit of Great-Britain will rearrange the power balance between parliamentary groups within the EP; therefore, the Fidesz delegation might not be needed as much as before.
Edit Zgut is a foreign policy analyst at Political Capital.