DemocraCE, EU, Hungary, Poland
The EPP votes against Orbán

Hungary and Poland face a sort of prisoner’s dilemma – the first one to betray will be rewarded

Wojciech Przybylski
13 września 2018

The breakthrough in the European People’s Party (EPP), which enabled the vote in the European Parliament to launch Article 7 against Hungary, is much more important for the political situation of Viktor Orbán in Europe than the procedure itself. The EPP has not yet removed Fidesz from the coalition but has stopped protecting it.

On Wednesday, September 12, the European Parliament voted by a large majority to launch Article 7 of the EU Treaty against Hungary: 448 MEPs voted for it, 197 were against and 48 abstained. The allegations against the current authorities in Hungary concern systematic violations regarding the independence of judiciary, restrictions placed on the freedom of speech and the freedom of research, corruption and abuses against minority rights and the rights of migrants.

Additionally, countless articles, public hearings and regular press reports about Hungary’s violation of democratic standards have coincided with an increasingly active role in European politics that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán chose to adopt.

Most notably, Orbán has decided to confront the EU with a new nationalist crusade. Since winning the Hungarian elections this past April, he has called for the creation of a trans-continental agreement among radical anti-establishment forces in Europe; in other words – and rather paradoxically – an international group of nationalists.

Orbán’s recent speeches, gestures (e.g., inviting Steve Bannon, the guru of the American alt-right {a loose coalition of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, neo-fascists, etc.}, to the official conferences of the Visegrad Group) and fraternal meetings with other European radicals has begun to have an effect, albeit probably a counterintuitive one.

After years of supporting the Hungarian PM, 115 EPP members, including most of the German CDU, voted against Orbán; only 57 supported the Hungarian PM, and 28 abstained.

The Polish members of the EPP coalition, PO, either voted for the resolution, like Michał Boni, who spoke in the debate preceding the vote, or abstained from voting like Bogdan Zdrojewski.

Orbán on his heels

For the first time, the Prime Minister of Hungary could not count on the umbrella of protection from his own faction – the EPP. Its leader Manfred Webber announced during the debate that he himself supported the referral to the European Council.

However, the political consequences are much more serious for Hungary than the actually resolution, and PM Orbán has reason to worry.

Hungary, although much more “advanced” than Poland in the liquidation of democratic institutions, has been strongly supported by its political coalition in the European Parliament – whose core consists of the European Christian Democrats, including Angela Merkel’s CDU and the Austrian ÖVP of Sebastian Kurz, as well as PO and PSL from Poland – for years.

Why has the EPP given its silent support to the Hungarian government for so long if the violations are as severe as they seem to be? A colourful metaphor paraphrased by Roland Freudenstein, Deputy Director at Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, explains the logic of the group:

“It’s better to have a bad guy in the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.”

This explains why, in October 2015, the EPP objected to the launching of the Article 7 procedure against Budapest, going against the proposal of one of the European Parliamentary committees.

To understand the weight these factions can have in the European Parliament, one need only compare Hungary’s rather prolonged disciplinary course with Poland’s, whose current PiS government (encouraged by Hungary’s impunity) began imitating Orbán’s illiberal reforms just a few years ago.

The changes in Hungary have been much more detrimental to the democratic state of law and been ongoing for the better part of a decade, yet so far Hungary has gone unpunished, and this is essentially due to their alliance with the EPP.

In comparison, neither the EU Commission nor the European Parliament has had any major problems with the commencement of the procedure for violating the rule of law against the Polish authorities, whose own coalition – the ECR (European Conservatives and Reformers) – is, at best, middling and can offer no real safeguards.

So, these disciplinary actions were swiftly taken against Poland despite the fact that it is a much more significant country than Hungary because of its larger population and the scale of its economy.

At least regarding its democratic backsliding, Viktor Orbán has finally lost the backing of his faction, which entails that he is neither protected by their voting bloc nor hindered by their liberal policies.

The launching of Article 7 against Hungary certainly does not help Poland’s similar situation. The governments of both countries can probably count on mutual promises of vetoing the most severe punishments from the EU, but when it comes to negotiations on the budget, they cannot sleep peacefully.

They are now facing a classic prisoner’s dilemma – whoever first turns against the other will receive a smaller sentence. This uncomfortable situation will certainly reduce Poland’s and Hungary’s negotiating power in this and many other matters.

Chancellor Kurz surprises

The circumstances might be even worse than Poland or Hungary had envisaged. In Tuesday’s debate, the European Parliament gained important symbolic support from the new Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who shares similar views on migration with Orbán.

Austria, although once threatened by similar sanctions when in 2000 conservatives formed a government with the same radically right-wing FP party, today does not hesitate to defend the rule of law and EU cohesion, as well as calling for the marginalisation of violating countries like Hungary and Poland, but also Slovakia and Romania.

The governments of these countries, regardless of the political colours, have actually carried out a dismantling of their democratic institutions, which threatens the political system of the entire European Union, and Kurz knows this.

All these issues are in the report of the Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini, which is supported by the European Parliament committees, and are attached to the resolution on the initiation of the procedure under art. 7 against Hungary; read it in full here.

Orbán defends the honour of his homeland

Viktor Orbán, who personally appeared in Strasbourg to defend his illiberal policies, argued about a few completely separate and seemingly unrelated ideas.

He announced that he had chosen to “fight Brussels” (in Strasbourg), and then he appeared on the forum of the European Parliament arguing that this criticism is simply aimed at humiliating Hungary for his opposition to the EU’s migration policy.

He said he was defending the honour of his country, yet he deliberately avoided referring to any of the actually accusations that were levelled against his government.

Seeing that the vote could go against him, Orbán used the opportunity to play to his domestic audience. In Hungary, he has been conducting an uninterrupted campaign of fear against an alleged wave of migrants whom he portrays as having devious plans (secretly buttressed by the mythical “Brussels” and the no less mythologised philanthropist George Soros) aimed at changing Hungarian culture and threaten the social order of the country.

It was on the wave of these resentments that he won the April parliamentary elections. Now, however, he may begin to develop a fear of failure – because without the EPP’s protective umbrella, his political significance in Europe will disappear.

Alliance offers from other European radical parties, which spring up like mushrooms after the rain, are not realistic options for Orbán because the real strength in European politics is the size of the faction. Therefore, contrary to what this week has shown, Orbán does not plan to leave the EPP and establish a separate party.

Nor does the EPP intend on excluding Fidesz from its ranks for now, but it is sending serious warning signs to Budapest. These are signals that in many issues more important than Article 7, such as the new EU budget, Hungary may have problems obtaining favourable solutions.

After which, it will be much harder to convince the paradoxically pro-European but also pragmatic Hungarian society that the government really works in their interest.

Wojciech Przybylski is the editor-in-chief of Visegrad/Insight and the president of the Res Publica Foundation.

The article is published as part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. It was originally published in Polish on OKO and can be found here.