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Viktor Orban and the EU – a fluctuating relationship

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 writes Tamás Boros. While EU politicians criticise the Hungarian Prime Minister for his disregard of European values, Orbán for his part perceives the European Union as the last check on his political power.

Over the past four years Viktor Orbán has become notorious in the international press as the enfant terrible of the European Union. However, it is important to take a deeper look at this public perception, get a detailed overview of the fluctuating relations between Viktor Orbán and the European institutions, and highlight the main driving forces behind those aspects of the Hungarian prime minister’s policies that diverge from the EU’s mainstream.

During his first premiership between 1998 and 2002, Viktor Orbán was a pragmatic pro-European politician, his approach back then did not run afoul of the “average” conservative politicians’ thinking, who preferred a close co-operation of nation-states to any ideas of federalism. Yet back at the helm of government in 2010, Orbán’s approach changed drastically. Since the Fidesz party he leads won back-to-back two-thirds victories in the 2010 and 2014 elections, Orbán assessed that his mission was to dismantle any and all impediments standing in the way of realising his political goals.

To this end, he 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. However, the elimination of internal controls increasingly met with external resistance in the form of the Union’s own legal order and political pressure. Rather than looking at these as parts of a regulatory framework, Orbán perceived them as inimical forces that needed to be overcome.

The “bad cop”: the European Parliament

The conflict between the Hungarian government and European Union politicians/institutions erupted shortly before Hungary assumed the EU’s rotating presidency in 2011. It was due to the adoption of new media laws that curtailed the Hungarian media’s existing freedoms in many respects. The European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the Hungarian government to re-examine this law and to repeal it. Because of international outrage over the latter, the Hungarian presidency of the European Union ended in failure in terms of politics and communication.

In the spring of 2011, despite intense resistance by the entire Hungarian opposition, the Orbán government rammed a new constitution through Parliament. Many clauses of the new constitution were subject to intense debates. The criticisms were primarily aimed at the document’s historically distorting preamble, the governing party’s power to replace a number of top officials at the helm of independent institutions, and, on the whole, the possibility offered by the new constitution to enshrine Fidesz’s policy ideas for a period exceeding its own term in government.

In the summer of 2011, the European Parliament adopted with a narrow majority a motion that criticised the new Fundamental Law of Hungary and called on the European Commission to review the constitution. 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. The European Parliament addressed the Hungarian situation on several other occasions as well, and by passing in 2013 the document that became known as the Tavares Report, it adopted an unusually sharp tone by the standards of European politics. In response, the governing majority of the Hungarian Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the European Parliament.

The conflicts between the two parties over the past four years show that the European Parliament is basically helpless against a Viktor Orbán bent on ignoring international pressure. An important factor in preventing the conflict from deteriorating was of course 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, he felt he could easily handle the conflicts with the European Parliament.

The “good cop”: the European Commission

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. Overall, the European Commission reacted in one of four typical ways to criticisms voiced by international watchdog organisations and the press, which alleged that “Hungary violates the fundamental principles of the European Union”:

1) In an overwhelming majority of cases, it did not react at all. The European Commission’s lawyers assessed that a given action by the Hungarian government that appeared to be in conflict with Union values did not actually fall under the EU’s jurisdiction, or that 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 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, or the intense criticisms of commissioners Viviane Reding and Neelie Kroes, 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 European Union, calling on the Hungarian public to rally behind a “freedom struggle against Brussels bureaucrats”.

3) In some cases, the Commission either initiated infringement procedures or threatened to do so. Yet it emerged that the European Commission would not prevail in a potential litigation in the European Court of Justice (special taxes), while in other cases the Hungarian government adopted legal amendments that seemingly satisfied European requirements. The European Commission failed to initiate any measures concerning those issues that constituted genuine threats to democracy.

4) On some issues the Hungarian government enacted real changes to comply with Union 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 criticised (such as for example the nationalisation of citizens’ savings in private pension funds), it ultimately managed to keep the deficit under 3% of GDP.

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 when it had specific financial or legal “disciplinary instruments” at its disposal.

Another four-year roller-coaster ride

In the Hungarian parliamentary election of spring 2014, Viktor Orbán clinched another two-thirds victory, while at the same time a new European Commission leadership was installed (Juncker/Timmermans), which is considerably more proactive than its predecessor. However, European institutions have few instruments vis-à-vis a government that uses criticisms or even advice by EU politicians to incite anti-EU sentiments domestically and resorts to legal trickery to circumvent infringement procedures. The Hungarian case renders it clearer than ever that the European Community was designed with pro-integration liberal democracies and economic boom periods in mind, with the result that it is struggling 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 new trends in the Union. One is that despite corresponding fears, tendencies weakening democracy are not “infectious” regionally. Moreover, Hungary was also further isolated in the region because Viktor Orbán’s foreign policies seeking to balance between the interests of the United States and Russia are diametrically opposed to the foreign policy course pursued by Poland, which 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 have only a very limited set of tools to take actions against a member state in the realms of democracy, rule of law, political rights or freedom of the press. 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 learn about the position of the Hungarian government and not that of the European Union.

In contrast, the tactics pursued by the United States, seeking to exert pressure on Viktor Orbán through the public dissemination of corruption affairs tied to the government, appear more effective. Yet applying this method in the European context would result in breaching yet new taboos in the relations between the Union and member states, even though the European Anti-Fraud Office presumably has the capacity to uncover similar problems in the context of the Hungarian uses of Union funds.

Tamás Boros is Director of the Budapest- based think-tank Policy Solutions and a member of the Scientific Council of FEPS (Foundation for European Progressive Studies). This article was first published by the European Progressive Observatory.

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