Hungary: What happens when democracy dies
- Credit: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Hungary is becoming Europe's rogue state, says PAUL KNOTT. With the coronavirus accelerating the process, it is past time for the EU to act decisively on the issue
It sounds wrong for a self-proclaimed defender of Christian values to take money away from the city of Göd. But Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán is too ruthless an operator to let the Covid-19 crisis go to waste.
He recently declared a special economic zone around the huge Samsung plant in Göd, near Budapest. This manoeuvre enabled him to transfer its business tax revenues from the opposition-run local municipality to a jurisdiction dominated by his Fidesz party instead.
Having seen much of its hard-won freedom and democracy steadily eroded during Orbán's decade in power, Hungary's slide into authoritarianism is now accelerating, with the Göd case just one example of how a hastily-passed 'coronavirus law' is being used to speed up the process.
This legislation permits Orbán to rule by decree for an indefinite period, bypassing normal democratic checks and balances. He is exploiting these new dictatorial powers in ways that have nothing to do with controlling the virus, say his critics. They argue that such actions should be the final prompt for the European Union to suspend a member state that has long since ceased to abide by the terms of EU membership.
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Hungary was a heroic early mover in eastern Europe's struggle to throw off totalitarian communist occupation. While its unsuccessful 1956 revolution was crushed by Soviet tanks, those events remained an inspiration for resistance until the regime finally fell in 1989.
Once the battle was almost won, a young Viktor Orbán even emerged to play a part in pushing the old autocrats out.
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As a then unknown student and political activist, Orbán's speech in Budapest on June 16, 1989, electrified the massive crowd at the emotional reburial service for the 1956 reformist leader Imre Nagy and other martyrs of the Hungarian uprising. In his address on that historic day, Orbán boldly demanded free elections.
Hungary's return to the family of free and democratic European nations was completed when it achieved EU membership on May 1, 2004.
The intervening years after the fall of the Iron Curtain had been devoted to an arduous effort to reform every aspect of the country's governance.
This was essential both to meet the Hungarian people's aspirations for a better future and the EU's 1993 'Copenhagen Criteria' for membership.
The core requirements of these criteria were that 'the candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities (and) the existence of a functioning market economy'.
Sadly, Orbán's actions since his second stint as prime minister began in 2010 mean that Hungary appears to be meeting few, if any, of these standards.
Numerous investigations, such as the European parliament's 2018 Sargentini Report, have identified the extent to which Orbán has been accused of undermining Hungarian democracy in favour of Fidesz, through steps such as the gerrymandering of parliamentary constituencies.
Even if some of the form of free elections remains in place, the substance of the essential democratic ecosystem has been shattered, say observers.
Orbán has been accused of restricting the activities of independent civil society organisations and of being largely in control of the supply of information.
Most of the mass media is now in the hands of the government or Orbán's business associates. At election times, such saturation is bolstered by publicly-funded, partisan pro-government propaganda, which blankets the country.
Other stunts used to broadcast Orbán's nationalist message include the 2016 referendum on rejecting the EU's proposals for handling the refugee crisis.
His campaign was built around slogans such as the one equating 'Migration and Terrorism'.
Orbán has a long-term perspective on shaping the political narrative too. This is pursued through tools such as the rewriting of school textbooks and orchestrating politically partial readings of Hungarian history.
Hand in hand with the distortion of democracy, observers say, has been a significant undermining of the rule of law in Hungary, with the government acquiring influence over the appointment of judges and weakening the powers and independence of the crucial Constitutional Court.
The country's human rights record, particularly on protecting minorities, falls far short of meeting civilised European standards, say Hungary-watchers. The Roma minority are said to be routinely mistreated and discriminated against in access to education and employment. Hungary's small numbers of immigrants and ethnic minorities are scapegoated.
Perhaps most sinister of all for a country that was governed during the Second World War by a brutal, pro-Nazi regime is the use of anti-Semitic tropes to demonise perceived opponents of the government.
These frequently target the Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor and philanthropist, George Soros – on one of whose generous scholarships Orbán himself studied in the UK as a young man.
Orbán's regime asserts that Hungary is a Christian country to which people of other religious faiths, notably Muslims, cannot truly belong. These distortions of Christian values are also used to victimise LBGT people, with a constitutional ban on gay marriage being used to stir up hatred.
The only one of the main criteria for its EU membership that Hungary arguably still fulfils is the requirement to have a 'functioning market economy'.
Hungary has a substantial private sector and its economy has grown over the last decade. This achievement explains Orbán's continued support amongst some Hungarians. But whether the country's market can truly be called free and functioning is open to question, given the accounts of government meddling in the judicial system and cronyism in favour of business people that support it.
The extent of this alleged corruption means that in many parts of the country, access to job and commercial opportunities is largely controlled either by Fidesz officials or oligarchs close to the prime minister.
Meanwhile, Orbán recently used his 'coronavirus law' powers to put the details of the controversial Chinese financing deal for the Budapest-Belgrade high-speed train line beyond scrutiny by having them classified as secret.
If it was applying to join the EU now, Hungary would not be accepted as a member. And it should not be allowed to continue as a normal one today.
As a unique organisation based on cooperation between a diverse group of nations, the EU relies on its members' adherence to an agreed set of rules and values in order for it to function.
Ultimately, its very existence is threatened if member states are permitted to disregard these standards with impunity, as Orbán's Hungary has been accused of doing for several years.
Permanently expelling Hungary from the EU is not an available option under the Union's governing treaties. It is probably not a precedent the Union would want to set in any case.
The Hungarian people's efforts in qualifying their country for EU membership were such that the right to retain it should not be removed.
What the Treaty on European Union does mandate, though, is suspending the rights of any member state that persistently breaches the EU's founding values of 'freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights'.
It is this option that the EU must now vigorously pursue. Specifically, the European Council should suspend Hungary's voting rights on EU policies and programmes. And no EU funding should be allocated to Hungary during the 2021-2027 EU budget round, which is currently being negotiated.
Suspending Hungary's voting rights will be difficult to achieve because it must be approved unanimously by the other member states. Poland, for one, has its own issues of maladministration to worry about and is likely to oppose Hungary's suspension in order to protect itself from similar action. But these issues, and the budget negotiations, are also levers which can be pulled to put pressure on Warsaw.
Either way, the very fact of initiating such proceedings would send a strong signal to Budapest.
At a time when Europe is scrambling around to find funds to support the member states worst affected by the Covid-19 crisis, there is no justification for continuing to send European taxpayers' money to Bupdapest. As well as allegations of persistent flouting of other EU rules, claims of Hungary's corrupt use of EU Structural and Cohesion Funds contracts to reward cronies have been well-documented by the EU's anti-fraud office, OLAF.
There is also an element of Realpolitik in favour of refusing to tolerate the damage Hungary is doing to the EU. Hungary adds little of benefit to the Union, is a net drain on its budget and has nowhere else to go.
For all of Orbán's pro-Kremlin bluster, Putin's rickety petro-state is hardly a viable alternative trading partner, even if a country that was de facto occupied by the Soviet Union for four decades really wanted to return to Moscow's embrace.
The Hungarian peoples' freedom of movement and their country's participation in the single market could continue during its suspension.
But removing Hungary's EU voting rights and withdrawing EU funding would firmly concentrate minds there until Orbán reverses course dramatically or is deposed and the country's democracy and rule of law is rebuilt.
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