Visegrad’s magic trick is not working
Viktor Orbán enjoys explaining away international criticism directed at him not only by blaming Soros and migration, but also, according to him, the West is simply not able to swallow the bitter pill that the Visegrad countries are economically more successful. This argument is not only misleading but full of self-contradictions.
While this line of thinking isn’t wholly new for the Hungarian Prime Minister, it was enriched by an additional element: he stressed that the European Union is criticising him because the policies of the Visegrad countries (V4) are more successful than those of Western part of Europe.
“There are some who are hurt by Central Europe’s rapid progress” – said Viktor Orbán in an interview on Slovak television. Orbán has presented a position that the Western European countries find it difficult to digest the economic successes of the region and seek to gain a competitive advantage in criticising “freedom-fighting” leaders similar to himself.
This assertion is supposed to complement the prime minister’s recurring argument that the EU’s criticism regarding the rule of law in Hungary is actually about the country’s anti-migration approach and his personal anti-quota policy and “everything else is irrelevant.”
The brass tacks
Before having a look at the meta-dimension of this misleading statement, let’s face the hard-economic reality. Contrary to the economically-developed Western European countries, Central Europe has indeed performed well in the last couple of years, but it is highly misleading to talk about the region as a roaring engine of economic growth.
In fact, the economic recovery of the larger economies has generated additional demand on the export market of these smaller member states. Therefore, the only thing that Orbán has forgot to mention is that a third of the GDP growth of the region is being secured by German companies settled in CE, and the Visegrad countries are being pulled up by the German economy which has seen growth above 2% in recent years.
It is also not clear how we could become a leading region when we are spending a significantly lower share of our already lower GDPs on research and development (R&D) than Western Europe or let alone South Korea. The resilience of the region is also highly questionable in case of a possible European economic crisis, which was mentioned by Orbán himself at a picnic in Kötcse. Ironically, the first hit on the Hungarian economy could come from an ideologically-aligned ally, Donald Trump, who is threatening European car manufacturers with additional tariffs.
The economic development of the Visegrad countries is very timely due to the tense negotiations of the EU budget. The EU and the Western European states have indeed recognised the success the Visegrad countries have achieved since their accession to the EU in 2004; so much so that it has become a separate aspect of the Commission’s proposal for the redistribution of resources.
Orbán has built up his argument around a narrative that his government’s rejection of the refugee quota system is the basis behind Western criticism of his regime. He has argued numerous times that Brussels was trying to stigmatise anti-immigrant countries, primarily Hungary and Poland. This continued rhetoric made the anti-asylum campaigns preceding the April elections easier to sell to the Hungarian public, especially when they are wrapped together in a conspiracy theory that George Soros and the EU want to undermine Hungary’s sovereignty.
Fidesz has accordingly responded to a report adopted by the European Parliament (EP) Committee on Home Affairs, Civil Liberties and Justice (LIBE). The report stressed that there is a risk of serious and systematic violations of EU values in Hungary; therefore, the triggering of Article7 of the EU treaty against the Central European country is justified.
Quickly dubbed by Orbán’s cohorts as the “Soros Report”, Fidesz claimed that Brussels wanted to urgently silence Hungary’s anti-migration government. Unfortunately for the Hungarian democracy, Fidesz completely ignored the content of the report in which LIBE objected to such developments as limiting the space for manoeuvring of for Constitutional Court, weakening the judiciary in general, the intimidation of media outlets through state advertisements, the elimination of independent newspapers and the very degree of domestic corruption.
All of these issues have been overlapping with the debate over the next MFF budget; a situation which leaves member states that aim to weaken the judiciary and restrict political and civil rights in, unsurprisingly, a worse bargaining position.
Due to all these factors, together with the economic necessities stemming from Brexit, the Commission has revised the system for reallocating the cohesion funds by adding criteria related to unemployment, participation in the migrant relocation programme, innovation and efforts to curb CO2 emission.
This change in criteria partly stems from the spectacular development Central Europe has undergone thanks to its regional resources. Yet, this is point where Viktor Orbán clearly contradicts himself: on one day, he applauds the V4 for eventually becoming net contributors who are actively engaged in Europe’s ascension, and the next day he is upset about receiving fewer EU funds for the sake of more-developed countries that are under considerable migratory pressure and whose relative level of development has deteriorated due to the migration crisis.
Introducing a rule of law condition by the Commission – which would tie EU payments to the independence of the judiciary and would also implement political conditionality into the system – is a separate criterion than the above-mentioned changes, though illiberal leaders would like to convolute the issue. Since 2015, Orbán has relegated human rights and procedural norms considered to be the foundations of liberal democracies to subservient positions, using the issue of migration as a distraction to his policies.
While hard-line anti-migration rhetoric has found its way into mainstream European politics – inasmuch as the issue of immigration lead to a coalition crisis in Berlin – Orbán has also restricted democratic space for refugees via a constitutional amendment that criminalises poverty, threatens those who offer humanitarian and legal assistance with jail, and by further weakening the judiciary.
All of this was done without a single, substantive opposition demonstration or major street protest, and Fidesz even ignored an ultimatum from their ally party, the European People’s Party. The European Union did not and apparently will not have any political or legal tools to stop this regime. Therefore, in the long run, it is only up to the renewal of the opposition in Hungary if it can offer a viable strategic vision that offers solutions to the “politically homeless” voters instead of criminalising homelessness itself.
Edit Zgut is a foreign policy analyst at Political Capital.