Hungary: A test case for the European Union

, by Vladimir Pecheu

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Hungary: A test case for the European Union

Ever since the enforcement of the new Hungarian Constitution which strikes at individual freedoms and strengthens the powers of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the European institutions have failed to take action. Yet, it is of the utmost importance for the future credibility of the European Union and the stability of the continent to adequately answer a leader trampling on democratic principles which constitute the core of the common agenda.

The Copenhagen criteria defined during the eponymous summit in 1993 regulate a set of requirements to join the European Union, which are based on the rule of law, a market economy and the ability to integrate the EU’s acquis communautaire as well as its values. If it is true that countries aspiring to become member states cannot overlook these requirements, then it is much more difficult for European authorities to condemn a atate which does not respect the same rules after it entered the EU.

Today, Mr. Orban strikes at minorities’ rights, the independence of the media and the judiciary, and he centralizes power. As such, his reforms directly affect European ideals. They triggered considerable dismay across the whole continent and it is surprising that a political answer emerged only at a late stage since the draft constitution was launched more than one year ago. A few days ago, the European Commission was able to exert pressure on the Hungarian government on some measures, but the negotiation happened mainly because Hungary, in dire economic straits, needs financial support from the IMF, which has agreed to a loan provided that Mr. Orban settles his dispute with the European institutions.

Article 7 of the European Union Treaty, which would allow one of the European institutions to suspend a state’s voting rights in the case of a “serious breach”, has been added to the agenda during debates at the European Parliament, but has not been used yet.

If we have a closer look at the contents of the measures, this situation seems unprecedented. Mr. Orban can disregard European values because he was satisfied to see that similar practices were being implemented by other European leaders, especially in Western Europe. The recent cases of Roma rights violations in France and Italy, and the disrespect of the Maastricht criteria are examples that prove that the EU has not been able to stand firm and has failed to establish a precedent in order to dissuade a breach of its values. Today, the EU can seize this opportunity to send a strong message and make a point, so that European leaders will no longer be able to break the rules without the threat of sanctions from the European institutions.

A split should be avoided

The Hungarian situation seems isolated, but it could turn into a model for other countries in the area sharing similarities with Hungary. Viktor Orban’s measures and his behavior as head of state were accepted so easily because Hungarians are deeply disillusioned by the country’s difficulties.

The Hungarian people, hit by declining and aging demographics as well as a long economic crisis, are not quick to clearly state their dissatisfaction with their leaders, despite surveys showing their leader’s rating popularity below 30%. However, this statement could also apply to other Eastern European countries which are former Soviet satellites, worn down by weak politicians, and whose new ideological stance did not bear the fruits promised to its people.

If Mr. Orban succeeds, other leaders might be tempted to do the same, paving the way for other rifts within the European Union. This scenario might seem somewhat remote, but it cannot be excluded. Generally speaking, Europe has to show the rest of the world, and in particular to the countries criticized for their authoritarian behavior, that European ideals are not negotiable, and are the very core of its existence.

To achieve this, the Parliament has a valuable asset to use. While the European Commission is often poorly perceived by citizens because of its lack of democratic legitimacy, MEPs can engage in sanctions against Viktor Orban, and him only. As such, they can avoid giving the impression that they are attacking the country and its inhabitants, something which may not be achieved with the abolition of the assistance fund suggested by the Commission. If they succeed, it could give a new political impetus to the European Union.

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