Viktor Orbán and the European Union: war and peace

The relationship between the Hungarian government led by Viktor Orbán and the institutions of the European Union has deteriorated dramatically over the past four years. While several EU politicians criticize the Hungarian PM for his disregard for European values, Orbán for his part perceives the European Union as the last check on his political power. The situation is complicated by two other factors: an overwhelming majority of the Hungarian public is pro-European and the country’s economy would be in ruin were it not for EU subsidies.

© European Union 2011 PE-EP/Pietro Naj-Oleari


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Over the past four years Viktor Orbán has become notorious in the international press and in the international political circles as the enfant terrible of the European Union. In a somewhat simplified manner, the public perception of the Hungarian prime minister’s policies is that these policies systematically clash with the European Union’s basic values, but all the Union institutions can do is helplessly look on. Taking a deeper look at Hungary-EU relations is relevant not only because of the relationship between Hungary and EU institutions, but because of the political model pursued by Viktor Orbán and its potential regional impact. Orbán’s domestic political success – primarily his re-election by an overwhelming margin in 2014 – could easily result in a scenario where other Central and Eastern European leaders begin following an “Orbánian” path.

During his first premiership between 1998 and 2002, Viktor Orbán was a pragmatic pro-European politician, who launched Hungary’s accession negotiations and set out to harmonize the Hungarian legal system with the Union’s acquis communautaire at an exemplary pace. Already at that time Orbán’s values had little in common with enthusiastic federalists. Nevertheless, his approach back then did not run afoul with the “average” conservative politicians’ thinking, those who preferred a close co-operation of nation-states to the ideas of federalism.

The conflict began over media law

Yet back at the helm of government in 2010, Orbán’s approach changed drastically, which manifested itself both in rhetoric and action. The Fidesz party, fuelled by back-to-back two-thirds victories in the 2010 and 2014 elections, took to dismantling any and all impediments standing in the way of Orbán realizing his political goals. To this end, the party adopted a new constitution, amended several hundred laws and replaced almost every member of the independent public bodies that play a vital role in ensuring the democratic system of checks and balances, from the president of the Supreme Court all the way to the president of the media authority. 1 The elimination of internal controls increasingly met with external resistance and political pressure from the EU’s own legal order. However, rather than seeing these as part of a regulatory framework, Orbán perceived them as inimical forces that needed to be overcome. 2

The conflict between the Hungarian government and European Union politicians/institutions erupted shortly before Hungary assumed the EU’s rotating presidency in 2011, due to Hungary’s adoption of a new media law that curtailed media freedoms in many respects. The international community was outraged and the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the Hungarian government to re-examine the media law and to repeal it. Because of the international outcry, the Hungarian presidency of the European Union ended in failure in terms of politics and communication – even though it was deemed a success in terms of professional management – thereby resulting in a significant loss of prestige for the recently installed Orbán government.

The European Parliament complains and retreats

Yet this was only the beginning in the frosty relations between the Hungarian government and the European Parliament. In the spring of 2011, despite intense resistance by the entire Hungarian opposition, the Orbán government pushed a new constitution through Parliament. Just as with the aforementioned media law, many clauses of the new constitution were subject to intense debates.

The opposition’s criticisms were primarily aimed at the document’s historically distorting preamble, 3 the power it gave to the governing party to replace top officials at the helm of independent institutions, such as ombudsmen, high-ranking judges in the ordinary court system and the judges of the Constitutional Court, and the possibility it offered to enshrine Fidesz’ policy ideas for a period exceeding its own term in government. Other salient points were new limitations on the powers of the Constitutional Court, the possibility of adopting retroactive legislation and the general radical weakening of the Hungarian system of checks and balances.

In the summer of 2011, the European Parliament adopted with a narrow majority a motion that criticized the new Fundamental Law of Hungary and called on the European Commission to review the constitution. The motion proposed said that “the constitutional process was not transparent, and the new Fundamental Law was drafted and adopted extremely rapidly, which failed to provide sufficient time to conduct a thorough and substantial public debate on the draft text.” 4 In the debate on the resolution, Viktor Orbán indicated that he would not accept foreign meddling in the Fundamental Law, which he considered an internal Hungarian issue. He also added that the new constitution complied with all European standards.

The European Parliament addressed the Hungarian situation on several other occasions as well, and in 2013 by passing the document, which became known as the Tavares Report, it adopted an unusually sharp tone towards Hungary. 5 The report assessed that there is an unequivocal and significant threat arising from the fact that the Hungarian government was engaged in a serious violation of the fundamental European values enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union. The Hungarian government for its part submitted that the report constituted a “serious violation and restriction of Hungary’s independence.” In response, the governing majority of the Hungarian Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the European Parliament.

Following its re-election in the spring of 2014, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party primarily sought to limit the scope of action available to certain Hungarian NGOs and the remaining independent media. Though the European Parliament reacted by holding new hearings, on the whole it was apparent that the “Hungarian issue” was fading in importance. The conflicts over the past four years show that the European Parliament is basically helpless against a Viktor Orbán bent on ignoring international pressure, even if the criticisms that the European body levels at the Hungarian government are unusually sharp compared to the language they generally tend to adopt. It was apparent that though the European Parliament’s criticisms carried considerable political weight, they did not result in any legal or financial consequences.

Within the narrow Hungarian and international intellectual audience the European Parliament’s resolutions and debates exerted a substantial negative impact on the assessment of Orbán’s government, but they had no effect whatsoever on Viktor Orbán’s public standing in Hungary. An important factor in preventing the conflict from deteriorating was the decision by the European People’s Party to stand up – sometimes openly, sometimes tacitly – for its member party, Fidesz, during the debates in the European Parliament. Viktor Orbán was well aware that international scandals that do not result in legal consequences would have limited impact on his domestic popularity, and reinforced by the protection extended by the European People’s Party, felt he could easily handle the conflicts with the European Parliament.

European Commission intervenes with caution

Though the European Commission is the guardian of EU treaties, during the past four years it has nevertheless adopted a considerably more cautious tone in the conflict with the Hungarian government than the European Parliament. One explanation may be that when it came to issues that could result in detrimental legal and financial consequences for his policies, Orbán did everything – at least superficially – to comply with the EU treaties.

His was the first Hungarian government in a long time that managed to push the budget deficit under 3% of GDP, and he went through painstaking efforts to ensure that Hungary was not in violation of the Maastricht Criteria. Since there was an excessive deficit procedure pending against Hungary, the prime minister was aware that a failure to accede to Brussel’s budget demands would risk several billion euros in cohesion funds. The Hungarian government made substantial concessions or adopted legal amendments that that were made to appear as concessions on all issues where the European Commission threatened Hungary with infringement procedures. Overall, the European Commission reacted in one of the following four ways to criticisms voiced by international watchdog organizations and the press, which alleged, “Hungary violates the fundamental principles of the European Union”:

1) In many cases (i.e. in case of the gerrymandering by the new Election Law or the when the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court was restricted) it did not react at all. This may be because in these particular situations the European Commission’s lawyers assessed that actions by the Hungarian government that appeared to be in conflict with EU values did not actually fall under the EU’s powers, or they decided it would be too risky to initiate steps against the Hungarian government with reference to a violation of Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union.

2) In another group of cases (i.e. in case of the Fourth Amendment of the Hungarian Constitution) the European Commission communicated its displeasure with certain policies. In this context, letters to Viktor Orbán by the president of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso, 6 or the intense criticisms of commissioners Viviane Reding 7 and Neelie Kroes 8, are worth pointing out. Yet these rebukes failed to have a significant impact. The Hungarian government primarily used them to stir public sentiments against the EU, calling on the public to rally behind a “freedom struggle against Brussels bureaucrats.”

3) In some cases, such as the special taxes against certain economic players, the abolition of the ombudsman’s office, the compulsory early retirement of judges and some minor issues, the Commission either initiated infringement procedures or threatened to do so. Yet in several of these cases it emerged that the European Commission would not prevail in a potential litigation in the European Court of Justice, while in other cases the Hungarian government adopted legal amendments that seemingly satisfied European requirements. Although the original problems remained, the Commission nevertheless abandoned further proceedings.

For example the Hungarian government planned to ban all political television ads during the election campaign to limit Hungarian’s access to information from non-governmental players. When the Commission criticized this step, the government changed the law by allowing political television ads, but added a clause that television channels were not permitted to accept money from political parties in exchange for the airtime. So the new law still resulted in the disappearance of these ads in the election campaign, but the Commission did not raise the issue anymore.

4) On some issues the Hungarian government enacted real changes to comply with EU law. The most important among these were measures to bring the Hungarian deficit in line with EU requirements. Though the government’s specific actions in this context were often criticized in the European Semester Country Reports (for the nationalization of citizens’ savings in private pension funds, for example), it ultimately managed to keep the deficit under 3% of the GDP.

The US seems to be more efficient in changing Hungarian policies 

On the whole, the European Commission was more effective than the European Parliament in terms of keeping the Hungarian government on a European trajectory, but it is obvious that it was only successful in situations where it had specific financial or legal “disciplinary instruments” at its disposal. During his visit to Hungary in autumn 2014, José Manuel Barroso did not even hint at criticisms of the government’s policies; he had visibly abandoned the goal of making the European Commission the institution that would compel the Fidesz government to restore the customary Western political model of democracy in Hungary.

In the Hungarian parliamentary election of spring 2014, Viktor Orbán clinched his second two-thirds victory, while at the same time under the leadership of the Juncker-Timmermans duo a new European Commission leadership was installed, which is considerably more proactive than its predecessor. This all but guarantees new conflicts between EU bodies and the Hungarian government. At the same time, the practice of the past years also makes it apparent that European institutions have few instruments vis-à-vis the Hungarian government. The Hungarian case renders it clearer than ever that the European Community, which was designed with pro-integration liberal democracies and economic boom periods in mind, has struggled to address the problem of increasing governmental populism in times of economic crisis.

Nevertheless, the past years provide us with two important insights concerning these trends in the EU. One is that despite corresponding fears, tendencies weakening democracy are not “infectious” regionally. In other words, the model of the Orbán government was not followed by its Polish, Slovakian or Czech counterparts.  Even the Romanian Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, quickly conformed to European standards following a few anti-democratic measures in the aftermath of his election victory.

Hungary was also further isolated in the region by Poland because Viktor Orbán’s foreign policies seeking to balance the interests of the United States and Russia are diametrically opposed to the foreign policy course pursued by Poland, the nation that wields the greatest economic power in the region.

Another lesson of the conflicts between the Hungarian government and the European Union over the past few years is that European institutions only have a very limited set of tools to take actions against a member state when it comes to democracy, rule of law, political rights or press freedom. The application of the often-cited Article 7, which would result in the suspension of a member state’s voting rights, would likely prove unproductive, for the Hungarian public would only hear the Hungarian government’s position and not the EU’s underlying reasons for the suspension. This would result in further heightened anti-EU sentiment while the actual problems would remain unresolved.

The tactics pursued by the United States in contrast, which seek to exert pressure on Viktor Orbán through the public dissemination of corrupt affairs tied to the government, appears more effective. It has resulted in a total U-turn in the government’s foreign affairs actions, as they have sent troops to aid the US’s fight against the Islamic State, and rhetoric, by emphasising that Hungary is and always will be a loyal member of EU and an ally of the US. Yet applying this method in the European context would result in breaching new taboos in the relations between the EU and member states, even though OLAF presumably has the capacity to uncover similar problems in the context of the Hungarian use of EU funds.

 

Notes:

  1. Nóra Novoszádek, “Hungary: The constitution is not a toy,” Visegrad Revue, 26 June 2013.
  2. Eszter Zalán, “The EU and Hungary: Locked in a tango,” Visegrad Revue, 26 April 2012.
  3. The basic law ‘deleted’ the sovereign Second Hungarian Republic (1946-1949) from history, when the text reads as follows:  “We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected organ of popular representation was formed”.
  4. European Parliament resolution on the revised Hungarian Constitution, 29 June 2011.
  5. Motion for a European Parliament Resolution on the situation of fundamental rights: standards and practices in Hungary.
  6. European Commission,  “European Commission Press Release: The European Commission reiterates its serious concerns over the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of Hungary,” 12 April 2013. 
  7. European Commission, “European Commission Press Release,” 17 January 2012. 
  8. European Commission, “European Commission Press Release: Neelie Kroes, Hungary´s new media law,” 11 January 2011.  
Tamás Boros

Tamás Boros

is a political analyst and the co-director of Policy Solutions Political Research Institute. He is also a member of the Scientific Council of the Brussels-based Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and the chair of the Europeans of the Year Jury in the German Schwarzkopf Foundation.