đź”’ EU battles Hungary’s democratic backslide; Orban’s illiberal agenda

In a decade-long pursuit of an “illiberal state,” Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban is challenging the foundations of democracy, aligning with autocracies, and aiming to reshape the EU in his image. Despite recent setbacks, Orban persists in undermining democratic values, with proposed legislation and manipulative tactics. The EU must resist financial concessions, demanding adherence to its principles. As Hungary faces scrutiny, the struggle highlights the urgent need to safeguard democracy within the bloc against illiberal influences.

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Orban’s Putin-Lite Act Gets a Dutch Echo: Marc Champion

By Marc Champion

It’s been almost a decade now since Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban boldly declared his goal of turning the country into an “illiberal state” founded on “national” values and modeled on countries such as China, India, Russia and Turkey. He’s been true to his word. Hungary is no longer a democracy in a meaningful sense, the sole European Union member that the US nonprofit Freedom House rates as only partly free.

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There was another portion of the agenda Orban launched with the speech he made to ethnic Hungarians in Romania that day in 2014. He has since made clear that his goal is to make his illiberal nation a model for other current and future EU members. If successful, that would change the bloc’s post-World War II design from one aimed at precluding the reemergence of nationalist autocracies to one that embraces and funds them. This is where Orban had less success until now, and it’s where the EU can and should do all it can to ensure he fails, a task made more urgent by the stunning victory of far-right lawmaker Geert Wilders in Dutch elections.

Orban last month had lost his only government-level ally in the struggle to make the EU safe for managed democracy, system-wide corruption and discrimination, after Poland’s Law and Justice Party lost a reelection bid. Meanwhile, the leader he so admires — Russia’s Vladimir Putin — was humbled militarily in Ukraine and severed from European markets. Turkey’s economy only just escaped a near-death experience caused by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s experiments with unorthodox monetary policy, and even China’s turbocharged growth engine was sputtering.

Far from chastened, however, Orban has doubled down. Judging by a speech he made in Zurich on Wednesday, where he called on Europe to reconsider its support for Ukraine or find itself alone in that effort if Donald Trump regains the US Presidency next year, Hungary’s prime minister remains confident the West is on course for an ultra-right, anti-democratic transformation. Last month, he became the first EU leader to be photographed shaking Putin’s hand since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the Russia leader’s arrest in March. Wilders’ victory in the Netherlands, an EU founder and heartland of European liberalism, will encourage Orban further.

His ruling Fidesz Party this week submitted a Protection of National Sovereignty bill to parliament that would criminalize foreign funding for nonprofits, and set up a watchdog to identify alleged foreign interference in Hungarian politics that would intimidate everyone from journalists to civil society activists. He also rolled out a billboard campaign, showing European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, overshadowed by Alex Soros, the son of Orban’s liberal and Jewish bete noire George Soros, with the slogan: “Let’s not dance to their tunes.”

But perhaps most telling is an ersatz referendum the government has proposed to establish a record of public support for taking on the EU over its economic, migration, gender-equality, rule of law and foreign policies. The nonbinding, unverifiable “consultation” looks like preparation for strong-arming the EU into releasing more than €30 billion ($33 billion) in financial aid to Hungary, which the European Commission has withheld on grounds that Orban has infringed basic requirements of EU membership.

The list of consultation questions reads like something a professor might draw up to show a class on how never to conduct an opinion poll. One question links the issue of EU financial aid for Ukraine directly to the bloc’s infringement procedure against Hungary, asking voters to choose whether they want to refuse to “pay more to support Ukraine until we’ve received the money that’s due to us.” Another asks whether Ukraine is ready for EU membership, a dire misrepresentation of the question the EU will decide next month, which is whether to offer Kyiv candidate status — the beginning point of a years-long process. Then there’s my personal favorite among these straw man choices: “We must not allow migrant ghettos to be created in our country,” versus, “Brussels’ migration plans must be accepted.”

Like all such populist manipulations — from former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s false claims on the financial benefits of leaving the EU, made ahead of the country’s 2016 Brexit referendum, to Trump’s equally mendacious claims of election theft in 2020 — Orban’s are persuasive in a world of broken trust. Ideally, the EU would suspend Hungary’s vote and cash flows until it restores the fundamental requirement of membership, as defined in the bloc’s so-called Copenhagen criteria. Any EU candidate must demonstrate “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities.’’ This is something Hungary has ceased to do.

There’s a strong case for it. “So long as this authoritarian island will remain within the EU it will continually undermine European decision-making, continually try to spread this illiberal malaise and act as an entry point for the interests or Russia and China,’’ says Daniel Hegedus, the Berlin-based senior research fellow for Central Europe at the German Marshall Fund. Yet even before Wilders’ shock win this week, any effort to take Hungary’s EU vote away was unlikely to succeed, as the required unanimity among member states would be almost impossible to achieve. Better, because this can be done, is to ensure that Orban can’t have his cake and eat it, to borrow from Johnson’s hope in Brexit negotiations with the EU. Orban’s model for destroying democratic choice, free media and an independent judiciary shouldn’t be bankrolled or quietly enabled by the EU.

The temptation will be to negotiate away money for gestures and promised cooperation. It emerged on Thursday that the European Commission is preparing to release as much as  €1 billion related to Hungary’s post-Covid recovery plan, while a further  €13 billion withheld over democratic backsliding could follow by the end of this year. None of the latter money should be released until Orban has made more than paper adjustments to his managed democracy. He is unlikely to comply and the economy would survive without the EU money. But for a nation with a gross domestic product of just under $180 billion, $30 billion is a huge loss. On issues such as Ukraine, Hungary should simply be bypassed rather than allow blackmail to succeed, with aid structures organized outside the official EU institutions, a practice with precedents on controversial issues.

Orban, Wilders and others must be free to enact the policies voters choose. Liberalism is not sacrosanct. Yet within the EU, democracy must be, and there is no such thing as illiberal democracy. It’s simply not democracy. Dismantling the institutions that ensure rule of law, media freedom and political opposition restricts the future ability of voters to choose who will govern them, liberal or otherwise. That enables cronyism, corruption and the abuse of power, running counter to everything the EU was built to achieve. The bloc should be unstinting in exacting a price for each of Orban’s actions that threatens those fundamentals, leaving him diplomatically isolated and under the microscope for how Hungary spends the EU funds it does receive. It’s a fight he has chosen and it should be bruising.

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