In this episode, your resident foreign policy nerds take a further look into the democratic crisis in Hungary. We’ll examine how Hungary ended up in this crisis, what it means for the European Union, and how Russia might come out ahead amidst the chaos.
First, we’d like to thank everyone who gave us feedback on our last three episodes. We really appreciate it, and we are open to any suggestions and constructive criticism.
The feedback we received had to do with our last episode about coronavirus and democracy. While it was filled with a lot of contextual information and facts, we only observed trends and did not go deeper. We want to not only provide information, but to also provide analysis of that information to better shape our arguments and give our listeners more than just a news bulletin.
So the case study that we will look at today is Hungary and the ongoing democratic crisis there.
However, we won’t just talk about Hungary as a flagrant case of democratic backsliding.
We will talk about Hungary as a member state of the European Union, what the implications are on the fabric of the EU, and how it affects the EU’s tumultuous relationship with its leading competitor, Russia.
Let’s start with a quick recap of what’s been happening in Hungary.
Well after a landslide victory in 2010,Viktor Orbáns fidesz party has slowly increased its hold on parliament, the executive, and many areas of public life. Its parliamentary supermajority has given it enough votes to alter the constitution and gerrymander electoral districts in a way that makes their seats virtually impossible to challenge.
They’ve also cracked down on press freedoms. Since taking power Orbán has used various tactics to consolidate state control of the media. His Fidesz party now controls most of the major news media outlets and broadcasters in the country. According to budapest-based scholar Marius Dragomir, from the CEU School of Public Policy, as of 2017, 90 percent of all media in Hungary was owned by either the state or a Fidesz ally.
So what you’re saying Hunter is that the ruling party in Hungary has a decade long history of subverting democracy.
In our last episode, we used Hungary as a prime example of how the COVID-19 pandemic gave authoritarian-leaning governments a ripe opportunity to increase their power.
Right. The Hungarian Parliament, dominated by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party, passed a law in March which puts Hungary in a state of emergency with no time limit.
Orbán is now allowed to rule by decree, and elections have been suspended. Essentially, he can now stay as the Prime Minister indefinitely.
The law also stipulated harsh jail terms for anyone caught spreading “misinformation” about the government’s coronavirus response, with the definition of misinformation being so broad it can cover practically whatever the government wants it to cover.
HUNGARY AND THE EU
As a member state of the EU, the move was condemned by thirteen other members, who called for intense monitoring of Hungary’s implementation of the law.
An Interesting fact: Hungary was the first country in the EU that Freedom House ranked as “partly free.”
So guys, you researched how the EU works. Let’s talk about it.
So the modern European Union was formed in 1993. It’s headquarters are in Brussels.
The EU operates as a political and economic union of 27 member states, and covers most of the continent.
These member states are signatories of the founding treaty, and as such are legally bound to European Union law put forth by the founding treaty and any of the reforms that came after.
As an economic union, The EU’s goals are primarily
- to create economic cohesion and a monetary union through common currency, the Euro,
- To establish a single, competitive market economy
The EU promotes social and political cohesion as well. Being its own political entity, the EU has 7 institutions under its executive, legislative and judicial branches, along with a central bank.
The most important institutions to note are:
- The European Commission, the primary executive body,
- The European Parliament, consisting of 705 members directly elected by EU citizens. The people elect members of their domestic political parties, who then join special European Parliament parties.
- The Court of Justice of the European Union
One thing that must be mentioned about the EU is its long standing rivalry with Russia. Since its conception, Russia has considered the EU an economic and ideological threat to its interests.
The rivalry intensified when Russia annexed Crimea in 2015, and when it intervened militarily in a Ukrainian internal conflict in 2014, which started a war in Donbass that is still going on to this day.
And Russia’s influence is clearly felt in Hungary. Despite Orbán coming to power in the 1990s in opposition to the Soviet Bloc, his Fidesz party has pretty strong relations with Russia.
After winning elections in 2010, Orbán rolled out the “Eastern Opening Policy”. The purpose is to strengthen economic and social ties with Russia. What’s more, Hungary has been vocally pro-russian in EU negotiations.
That’s true. As Ramya said before, Russia violated Ukraine’s sovereignty by sending soldiers there in 2014, which earned them sanctions from the EU and the United States. Orbán rejected the EU sanctions on Russia, and argued Russia’s case for military intervention. Now, keep in mind that Hungary is a member of both the EU and NATO, so when the government embraces more Russia-friendly policies, it raises a lot of alarms.
Exactly. The whole point of NATO, which is a military alliance, and the EU, which covers most of the European continent, is to provide a strong alliance that can keep Russia from expanding its influence westward.
That being said, Orbán’s conduct in regards to Russia worries Brussels quite a bit. Moreso, Hungary has been violating many of the EU’s values, such as a commitment to democracy and individual freedoms. So with that out of the way, let’s talk about the relationship between Hungary and the EU.
Ryan, could you tell us about some of the measures that the EU can take against Hungary to get Orban back in line?
WHAT CAN THE EU DO?
Well, the most straightforward approach would be to remove Hungary from the EU. However, there is no method to remove a member state. The most it could do is to suspend Hungary’s rights as an EU member. To do this, the EU would need to invoke Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which can be triggered in the event of a member state violating the fundamental tenets and rights of the EU. However, Article 7 requires a unanimous vote from all members, who would determine whether or not there is a definitive threat to the Hungarian population’s welfare.
Unfortunately for the EU, Hungary has a steadfast ally in Poland, another country experiencing democratic backsliding over the past decade. All it would take is for the Polish govt to say that they don’t see a risk to Hungary’s people, and any vote would fail.
That’s right! In fact, the EU has leveled Article 7 charges against both Poland and Hungary in the recent past.
They did so in 2018 due to concern for the rights of the Hungarian people, including judicial independence, freedom of expression, corruption, rights of minorities, and the situation of migrants and refugees.
And of course, Poland’s vote kept Hungary out of hot water. In the case of Poland, the EU took action against it in December 2017 because the independence of the country’s judiciary was being threatened. As you can imagine, Hungary voted against it.
Another route that the EU can take to punish Hungary is to remove Orbán and his Fidesz party from the European Parliament. The way the EU can go about this is by revoking Orbán’s membership from his European Parliament political party, the European People’s Party (shortened to EPP for this episode).
In fact, Donald Tusk, the leader of the EPP, called for such action in early April. Orbán and his party have actually been suspended from EPP activities multiple times in the past, the most recent being in March of 2019.
However, Fidesz party members are still members of the EPP.
So why are they still members? It’s obvious that their colleagues don’t support their membership.
The problem is that there are many others involved who don’t want to take too strong of a measure against Orbán and Fidesz, mainly within the EPP itself.
Fidesz has 13 Members in the European Parliament, which makes up 7% of the EPP’s members. 7% doesn’t sound like much, but it can be the difference between a vote passing or failing. Plus, Orbán’s key relationships with Poland and other neighbors bring in many votes for the EPP.
Basically, the EPP believes that if they expel Orbán and Fidesz from their party, it will have less control over what Hungary does than they do now, and they’ll lose seats in Parliament that they need to stay relevant.
So if the legislative branch of the EU is unable or unwilling to take charge of the situation, what can the executive do?
Instead of coming after Orbán’s political influence, it can try to hurt Orbán’s pockets by cutting EU funding to Hungary.
Here’s the problem: the European Commission doesn’t have the power to act unilaterally against Hungary.
The Commission would need to gain the support of the EU heads of state and a majority in the European Parliament to take the necessary actions against Orbán.
And as I mentioned before, Orbán and Fidesz have the EPP in a predicament over their eligibility as members. Taking actions against them in this manner could lead to Orbán retaliating by withholding votes from the EPP.
True, and we also need to keep in mind that it’s unlikely that enough heads of state will be willing to go through with these measures against Hungary. Most of them will be afraid that someday, the same actions could be taken against them. Countries like Poland and Bulgaria come to mind.
So if the Parliament won’t act and the Commission can’t act, what’s left for the EU to do?
The remaining course of action for the EU would be to take Orbán to court. The European Court of Justice can be another way to impose financial penalties if the European Commission can’t secure enough support to cut EU funding for Hungary entirely. In a previous case against Poland, the Court imposed its highest penalty of 100,000 euros per day, which can end up costing a country a little under 40 million USD a year.
While that all sounds well and good, the court proceedings could take years before they come to a resolution. What’s more, $40m a year in fines, while still significant, is not a figure that will immediately persuade Orbán to back off. It would take years of fines to accumulate before the number would become too big for him to ignore.
By that point, Orbán will have already fully consolidated his rule and there will be practically no way to reverse his decisions and take away his authority. The courts are a stable measure, but time is on Orbán’s side, and really authoritarians in general.
Who Makes out the Best?
So we want to talk about who makes it out of this situation the best, but it’s a little complicated. What we can do is separate major actors based on who benefits from it and who doesn’t.
COVID-19 has fundamentally altered the political climate. Right now, most countries are just struggling to get by on their own, and the EU and Russia are no different. Both are still reeling from the unprecedented economic downturn affecting the whole world. However, there is still room for political maneuvering, as Orbán has so brazenly demonstrated. It’s too difficult to tell who is going to come out ahead overall, but we can at least take a look at who benefits from this situation.
Let’s start with Orbán and the Fidesz Party. They are the obvious beneficiaries of this whole situation, as they have taken nearly complete control over all aspects of the Hungarian government. They also have the means to prolong their rule indefinitely.
But, It’s important to remember that the Fidesz-run government won’t have much legitimacy among other democracies, which means that they will be less likely to support Hungary at all. However, Orbán has been cultivating his relationship with Putin for this exact moment. Following the decade-long trend to its logical conclusion, Hungary might turn almost completely towards Russia for support.
That may sound like a solid plan, but Russia has its own agenda regarding Hungary, so it’s safe to say that the relationship will not be of equal partners. Plus any ally of Russia quickly finds itself isolated from the rest of the international community, as can be seen from countries like Ukraine and Belarus. In pursuit of a short term benefit, Orbán and Fidesz may have made a deal with the devil that will come back to haunt them in the future.
While things right now clearly benefit Orbán and Fidesz, it’s also clear that these events have been terrible for the Hungarian people. They have seen their rights slowly eroded over the past decade, culminating in Orbán’s decree that he will be their ruler for the indefinite future. Fidesz’s ownership of the media and ousting of all foreign businesses and investments have created a situation where, really, only Orbán’s friends benefit and the rest of the people suffer. What’s worse, the situation will only deteriorate as time goes on. The only power that can aid the Hungarian people is the EU, but right now it looks completely unable to deal with the situation.
That’s totally right. The EU’s inability to punish Orban in the past lead us to believe that it will be similarly ineffective now, for the reasons we’ve previously discussed in this episode. Such a failure is not a good sign for the EU’s hopes for the future. The entire point of the EU is to be a higher governing power over the majority of Europe, and if it can’t impose its will on a member state that is going against the fundamental rights the EU affords to its citizens, it’s effectively meaningless.
Hungary’s actions also set the precedent that other EU members can act similarly. If the EU can’t stop Orban from turning Hungary into a dictatorship, how could they stop anyone else? We’ve already seen it happen with Poland. And where the EU loses influence, Russia is waiting in the wings to swoop in.
That leads us to Russia, the other major actor that benefits from the current crisis in Hungary. In general, where the EU falters on the continent, it’s usually Russia who gains from it. The current situation in Hungary reflects that.
That’s right. Putin, unlike Orbán, is not a member of the EU and is not subject to its terms and conditions, so he is free to conduct himself and his country as he sees fit. However, Putin would like to have plausible deniability when it comes to influencing the EU from the outside. That’s why he has been and will continue to act through his ally Orbán to promote Russia’s agenda inside the EU.
This is all part of Russia’s grand strategy to fracture the EU and to return Europe into the regional spheres of influence that would allow Russia to reform its Cold War holdings across Central and Eastern Europe. Those holdings, which would include countries like Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland, would form a buffer between Russia and the relevant EU powers like Germany and France, and would give Russia crucial allies with which it can trade without violating international sanctions already placed on it.
While Russia is still in a bad economic state thanks to Covid-19, and has already isolated itself from the rest of the world, it is certainly gaining a lot from Orbán’s authoritarian ascension.
So with that it’s time for Final Takes. Guys, what should listeners remember from this episode, if they remember nothing else?
RECAP OF THE MOST IMPORTANT BITS OF THE EPISODE
So the big takeaway from all this is that Hungary’s institutions have been under constant pressure since Orban’s Fidesz party won in 2010. His move to take broad emergency powers during this pandemic might seem extreme on the surface, but it’s part of a larger pattern of democratic backslide. In the last episode we talked about how hard it is to revoke emergency powers once they’re given, and the fact that the EU can’t effectively reign in Victor Orban’s ambitions makes that process even harder. And the more the EU forces his hand, the more Hungary will look to Russia as a strategic partner. This undermines the very stability of both NATO and the EU
The European Union is the international governing body of which Hungary is a member. Which means that the EU should be able to take action against a member that is clearly violating the EU’s values and its laws, which, on paper, are legally binding.
However, what we’ve laid out in this episode shows that the EU, in practice, can’t do much about member states like Poland and Hungary. The EU is ultimately a political union as well, and we see politics getting in the way of stopping bad behavior.
Orban’s influence over the European Parliament, coupled with the support he has earned from other backsliding democracies like Poland make it nearly impossible for the EU to effectively stop his actions.
Essentially, the EU is a paper tiger. It looks like a powerful entity, but it only works when everyone buys in. In its utopian goals, the EU does not account for countries simply not listening to it.
Where the EU is slipping, Russia is picking up the slack. More and more we see post-Soviet states like Hungary slipping back into the strong man politics that dominated their governments during the Cold War. Viktor Orban and Hungary are just the latest examples.
The country is still a member of the EU, but it’s clear that Orbán and his Fidesz party’s long term goals align more favorably with Russia than the other member states. Due to Hungary’s support, Russia has a scapegoat within the EU to sow discord, undermine EU values, and most importantly, take the fall when the time comes. And as we can see from the EU’s troubles dealing with Hungary, it’s already working. Only time will tell if Russia will be able to capitalize on this advantage in a meaningful way, but the way things are going now, Orban has given Putin another tool in his arsenal to destabilize democracy in Europe.
That’s it for our episode today. If you enjoyed the episode please review and subscribe on Itunes, Spotify, or however you’re listening. If you have any questions about the episode or ideas for future shows, please email us at Geopoliticsrundown@gmail.com. Thank you for listening, this has been, Geopolitics Rundown.