Since returning as prime minister in 2010, Orbán and his Fidesz party have chipped away at Hungary’s democratic checks and balances, curbed judicial independence and clamped down on the independent media. Hungary’s democratic backsliding has been accompanied by a drumbeat of xenophobic rhetoric, directed against refugees, Brussels and George Soros.The EU, used to grappling with Brexit, is now confronting a country at the heart of the continent making an exit from the club’s liberal values, but continuing to pick up the cheques.
The European commission, however, does not see a systemic problem. The current commission’s mandate ends in 2019 and many EU insiders think its president, Jean-Claude Juncker, is reluctant to pick a fight with Orbán.
Both politicians are members of the the European People’s Party, Europe’s dominant centre-right bloc, which has shielded Orbán from criticism. Before Sunday’s resounding win, some EPP members were hopeful Orbán would change. “He has been very outspoken, because he has been radicalised by the elections,” one EPP politician told the Guardian. “I think he will moderate and become more reasonable.”
People who have followed Orbán’s career are not convinced. “He is getting more and more ambitious,” said Laurent Pech, professor of European law at Middlesex University. “He feels that the political constellation is favouring him.”
The Hungarian leader’s approach to migration has been endorsed by allies in Bavaria and Austria. Allegations of misuse of EU funds have met a muted response from net payers to the EU budget. The previous commission froze EU funds for the Czech Republic, after corruption concerns emerged. While the EU’s anti-fraud office is investigating fishy cases in Hungary, money has continued to flow.
Orbán has compared his manoeuvres with Brussels to a “peacock dance”, cosmetic changes to appease EU officials, while persisting with the plan. But when it comes to a law that threatens the closure of the Central European University, “he didn’t back down,” Pech observes. “With CEU he didn’t follow the script.”
He has also refused to back down over a Russia-style NGO law that would require foreign-funded groups to label themselves as “organisations supported from abroad”. The commission is taking Hungary to the European court of justice over the CEU and the NGO laws. It is the same method used to tackle governments flouting EU rules on package holidays or water pollution.
Some MEPs think this technocratic approach is inadequate to deal with Hungary’s increasingly autocratic leader. The European parliament has begun a process that could see Hungary named and shamed under article 7, the EU’s rule of law procedure. But only governments can take decisions and the final step, suspension of voting rights, looks improbable.
A few member states would rather attach democratic strings to EU funds – an idea backed by France and Italy’s outgoing government, known as rule-of law conditionality. But the lag in agreeing and spending EU money, means such measures may not bite until 2024. “[By then] Orbán would be re-elected once more and use EU money as he has done so far,” says László Andor, a former Hungarian EU commissioner. “Rule of law conditionality is a fake solution.”
He would like the EU to change the management of funds. “Orbán and his entourage are helping themselves out of the coffers of the EU while they cut all the possible funds for pro-European civil society and media. So this is a paradox that needs to be resolved urgently.”
The EU is a club of liberal democracies that depends on independent courts and checks and balances in its member states. Despite the high stakes, there are few signs European leaders are ready to challenge Viktor Orbán.