EU institutions are yet to make an earnest commitment to helping Hungary’s battered liberal democracy regain its strength. Nevertheless, the short-term alternative to a robust European response is the further consolidation of authoritarianism in Hungary.

Freedom House’s newest annual report has categorised Hungary, a country where a competitive authoritarian regime has come to replace liberal democracy during the 2010s, as only ‘partly free.’ Such a negative change in the status of an EU member state is unprecedented and ought to have manifold practical implications – as well as trigger much critical reflection.

Viktor Orbán

Largely unprepared and for long years also rather negligent, European institutions have until now failed to offer a strategic response to the worsening anti-liberal challenge posed by Viktor Orbán’s ‘internal’ regime. It is now rather late but all the more urgent to develop a far-sighted policy regarding the future of the current Hungarian regime in the European Union.

An enabling role

The European Union has remained an often misunderstood actor in the sorry political developments that have unfolded in the country since 2010. It has often been assumed that there is an unresolved conflict between European institutions and Hungary’s wayward governments. But such a conflict has only been part of the story.

The other, in many ways more uncomfortable truth, is that European political and economic elites, including EU institutions, have been complicit in legitimating and strengthening Orbán’s radicalising regime.

Through the unprincipled shielding of Fidesz by the nominally centre-right European People’s Party and through massive European subsidies allocated to Hungary, which have been largely controlled by the country’s power-holders, EU institutions have helped the Orbán regime reshape the country’s political order.

After almost a decade of Fidesz’s ever more encompassing anti-liberal takeover, the balance sheet of European actions is – to the surprise and disappointment of Hungarian citizens in favour of a liberal democratic regime – far from laudable. To an extent, the EU may have constrained Hungary’s authoritarian turn. However, unwittingly at best and cynically at worst, European institutions have enabled as much as constrained the conscious weakening of liberal democracy.

Debating strategies

There is, therefore, an urgent need to debate what strategies might work best in the future when it comes to the first ‘partly free’ EU member state. Until now, the political debate regarding Hungary has focused primarily on questions concerning the rule of law. The worsening clash has also often been conceptualised as one over ‘values’.

As I shall aim to show, rule of law criteria, presented as a panacea in legalistically-minded circles, may indeed be necessary but are insufficient. At the same time, the futile disagreement over cultural values ought to be replaced by a reassertion of the liberal democratic minimum with regard to institutional designs and practices.

Věra Jourová, European Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency

When aiming to devise a new strategy concerning anti-liberal challengers, the question immediately arises whether the EU ought to continue with its much-cherished consensual approach. Should it wish to make, in the name of accommodating ‘different national viewpoints,’ further compromises with the current Hungarian regime?

This consensual strategy, laudable though it may be in many other instances, has clearly failed to work when it comes to halting Hungary’s accelerating democratic decline.

There is also a paradox at the heart of how representatives of the Orbán regime have defended the need for such a consensual approach within the EU. They have repeatedly asserted that the EU ought to respect ‘pluralism’ and be tolerant of ‘diversity.’ These are indeed key European values but ones the Orbán regime has consciously aimed to undermine within Hungary.

The moot question is why to allow for a greater diversity of regime types within the EU than there is political pluralism in each and every member state?

When it comes to the much-discussed rule of law criteria, the basic problem is as follows: having acquired a constitutional majority back in 2010 and retained such a majority through the free but unfair elections of more recent years, Fidesz governments have been able to concentrate power without too many egregious violations of the rule of law in the narrow sense.

At the same time, the Hungarian governments of recent years have indeed repeatedly violated the rule of law if the latter is understood in a broader sense, i.e. as a stable and reliable legal environment where relevant stakeholders are properly consulted and negotiated with.

Far from sufficient

Nonetheless, Fidesz has been largely able to rule by law when replacing liberal democracy with an anti-liberal, competitive authoritarian regime. Applying rule of law criteria in the narrow sense thus remains necessary but is far from sufficient when aiming to effectively oppose the regime’s politically motivated legal strategies.

The EU would be able to connect its system of subsidies – which has been unusually generous to Hungary in recent years – to higher standards regarding basic freedoms, fair political competition and transparent utilization of the aforementioned resources.

Most importantly, EU institutions should consider ways to distribute at least parts of their subsidies directly to democratic local authorities – to larger cities with pro-European mayors but also to struggling smaller localities where government control may be at its highest at the moment.

Such a more refined strategy would allow the EU to help decentralise power in its wayward member states now and in the future. It might finally put an end to the EU helping to strengthen, through taxpayers’ contributions from various countries, regimes that no longer wish to be liberal democracies.

When it comes to all of these issues – maintaining an ‘unprincipled consensus’ between countries, narrowly applying rule of law criteria without proper concern about the political utilisation of legal measures, and allocating subsidies to countries without sufficient strings attached – the EU has significantly more leverage and therefore also much higher responsibility than its representatives have been willing to admit.

While European institutions are certainly not capable of reviving liberal democracy in Hungary on their own, they possess much more influence than they have been willing to employ strategically.

Disagreement over institutional designs

Terms such as ‘populist’ and ‘illiberal’ have been widely used to describe Fidesz’s rule in recent years. In my assessment, both ought to be viewed as euphemistic.

First, there is nothing particularly populistic about Fidesz’s rule if we understand under populism an angry and at times demagogical politics with egalitarian ambitions. Fidesz’s policies in power have not made Hungarian society more equal, nor have they earnestly intended to do so.

Second, there is simply no such thing as an illiberal democracy. It is impossible to have a well-functioning democracy without guaranteeing basic rights and freedoms, without free and fair elections, without checks and balances, without free and pluralistic media, without an unrestricted civil society and autonomous academic institutions.

The latest since 2015, the Hungarian government’s political-ideological platform has closely overlapped with the preferences of the European far-right: the values it has propagated are anti-liberal rather than merely illiberal ones.

Let some people prioritise their national identity, Christian values and the family while others commit more to democratise Europe, the secular values of the Enlightenment and gender equality – such differences evidently belong to political pluralism. However, we should not make the mistake of stopping the political debate by simply acknowledging such divergences over cultural values.

A more fundamental disagreement between the Hungarian government and its opponents concerns institutional designs, i.e. the very core of the liberal democratic model.

The disagreement ultimately concerns the need for a transparently functioning state ready to engage in open and substantial dialogue with its citizens, and for a government that respects the supervisory role of various counter-institutions and considers the balancing role of the opposition equally legitimate to its own.

Reasons for worry, reasons for hope

As R. Daniel Kelemen has recently warned, anti-liberal enclaves in larger democratic unions, paradoxical though they may seem, can prove rather durable. Such enclaves might even spread unless the larger union takes its norms and values seriously and begins to enforce them.

Faced with an unexpected challenge, EU institutions are yet to make an earnest commitment to helping Hungary’s battered liberal democracy regain its strength. Their prolonged negligence may soon result in a more profound political crisis of the European project than the entire shambles surrounding Brexit.

The short-term alternative to a robust European response, after all, is the further consolidation of authoritarianism in Hungary. Such an alternative – if it eventually leads to Hungary’s exclusion from the European club and also if it does not – would prove far too costly.

For Hungarian citizens in favour of liberal democracy and enjoying the considerable benefits of belonging to the European Union, the just mentioned alternatives sound catastrophic. They would amount to a clear betrayal of the EU’s original promise.

Luckily, there are substantial reasons to trust in future improvements. There is a large pro-European majority in Hungary and across the Union, and also a broad agreement across Europe regarding the basic standards of liberal democracy. Ultimately, these two pillars, if combined with far-sighted European policies, should provide solid bases for Hungary’s return to the liberal democratic mainstream.

The careful balancing act of the Orbán regime – a hypocritical attempt to build a competitive authoritarian regime while simultaneously aiming to appear EU-compatible – are unsustainable for much longer.


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.

Ph.D. Assistant Professor in European History at Maastricht University.

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

Download the report in PDF