Monday, September 15, 2014
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Fixing Europe’s Orbán Problem

BERLIN/BUDAPEST – In April, when German Chancellor Angel Merkel congratulated Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on his reelection, she let it be known that his large majority implied a “special responsibility” to use good judgment and behave with sensitivity toward opponents. He has done exactly the opposite.

Indeed, Orbán has consistently defied the European Union’s core values and practices. Taking a page from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s playbook, Orbán has wielded his Fidesz party’s two-thirds parliamentary majority to push through a number of laws that attack what freedom remains in Hungary’s media, civil society, and academic community.

In his latest move against the media, Orbán has implemented an additional 40% tax on advertising revenue, in order to take down RTL Klub, Hungary’s last independent-minded television station. Meanwhile, he is tightening the screws on local civil-society groups, run by what he denounces as “paid political activists who are attempting to enforce foreign interests.” For example, he has sent government auditors to harass Norwegian government-funded NGOs promoting civil liberties and human rights. And last month, the parliament passed a law mandating a government-appointed supervisor for each Hungarian university, with budgetary authority and veto power.

In a recent speech, Orbán revealed that his ultimate objective is to build an “illiberal state” on “national foundations,” citing authoritarian regimes like Putin’s Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, and China’s one-party state as role models. He then asserted that these plans do not conflict with his country’s EU membership.

One might expect European conservatives, in particular, to react strongly to Orbán’s actions, which discredit their entire political movement. But they seem determined to continue treating Orbán with kid gloves, even as he spurns liberal democracy.

For starters, EU Commission President-designate Jean-Claude Juncker has remained silent on Orbán’s actions. Meanwhile, Merkel, the EU’s most influential politician, has expressed only moderate criticism, saying in May that she is “certainly not in agreement” with all of his policies, and often does “not quite agree with his tone” of certitude. As if these statements were not weak enough, she tempered them further by emphasizing that this failing was not exclusive to Orbán.

But the most problematic reaction has come from the European People’s Party, the center-right umbrella grouping to which Orbán’s Fidesz belongs. In April, then-EPP President Joseph Daul praised the Hungarian leader for renewing public confidence in the government with honesty and “courageous” economic reforms.

This response has convinced Orbán that behaving like a populist autocrat in the center of Europe does not pose any political risk, and has emboldened him to press his crusade against liberal democracy further. The only way to stop him – and to protect the EU’s fundamental values, not to mention its self-respect – is to offer him a clear choice: act like a democratic statesman or become a pariah.

Given that Germany is Hungary’s most important trading partner, Merkel should lead the charge, rallying Juncker and the new EPP president, Manfred Weber, behind a set of tough and credible measures. These should include, first and foremost, the exclusion of Fidesz from the EPP faction in the European Parliament, to be readmitted only if and when Orbán changes course.

Second, Merkel must make it clear that Orbán will face severe sanctions if he continues on his present path. As Sweden’s EU Affairs Minister Birgitta Ohlsson has proposed, EU funds – which Orbán distributes to his supporters – should be withheld. Moreover, Orbán should be put on notice that Hungary’s EU voting rights could be suspended, based on Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which spells out penalties for a “serious and persistent breach” of common values.

Third, the EU must create more effective mechanisms for monitoring the democratic health of its member countries. To this end, European leaders must flesh out the rule-of-law initiative that Denmark, Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands proposed last May. At the very least, they should task the European Agency for Fundamental Rights with providing a regular assessment of democracy and basic rights in European countries, and authorize corrective action by the European Council and the Commission against countries that perform poorly.

Finally, following Norway’s example, European countries should increase support for civil-society initiatives that are under pressure from Orbán’s government, and find innovative ways to support independent media. With all of Hungary’s public media outlets singing Orbán’s tune, Radio Free Europe and Deutsche Welle might consider launching Hungarian-broadcasts.

If Orbán succeeds in building an illiberal state within the EU, others might be encouraged to follow suit. Fortunately, the EU and its members are far from powerless to prevent such an outcome. All that is needed is the political will to confront the clear and present danger to democracy that Orbán poses.

If Orbán were active in Germany, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution would likely be pursuing him for his anti-democratic activities. It is time for Germany to promote its constitutional principle of wehrhafte Demokratie, a democracy capable of defending itself, to the entire EU.

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  1. CommentedRob Gallo

    I suppose that the previous, discredited Socialist government, distributed EU funds differently?

  2. CommentedRob Gallo

    Is it all that bad in Hungary? Is it all doom and gloom?

    As someone who has been visiting and living in Budapest for a number of years, I must say that I find the Hungarian capital a much better place to be under the recent government. It feels safer, cleaner, and seems to work much better than in past.

    It is difficult to be neutral in Hungary regarding politics - there is a tremendous amount of innate animosity.

    I wonder why those opposed to the current government never point to the fact that the reforms recently carried out - shrinking the number of seats in Parliament, for example - are actually good things. Why a country of 10 million people needed some 360+ seats in Parliament was a real joke, specifically set up t prevent a clear course of action.

  3. CommentedCalumet B

    Hungarians are used to live in autocracy/dictatorship if they are stunned by some Hungaricums (palinka and sausages) and of course by "rezsicsokkentes". Of course Orban can only keep it calm by showing up enemies of the "Nation".
    So Orban is the problem of Europe indeed since he could be example of other EU leaders. Moreover, Orban sooner or later will/need to play with the card of nationalism and that could burst the region into flame.
    The sooner the better EU must act against this pocket-Putin.

      CommentedRob Gallo

      Calumet B,

      This is a silly and mindless post. The average Hungarian is no more 'stunned' by incentives than any other people.

      Thankfully the EU is in fact a democratic construct, so it can't go about removing a legally and properly elected head of state just because it does not agree with him.

  4. CommentedGergely Horvath

    So Europe rather has a Reinicke problem than an Orban problem. We have heard these kind of people so often in the past 20 years...

  5. CommentedGergely Horvath

    Hungary has been following very liberal policies in the last 20 years. The result was a strong increase in GDP, but a simultaneous DECREASE in GNI. The difference between GDP and GNI was taken out of the country as dividends, interest and management fees. Hungarian society is - as a result - fed up with liberal economic policies. They have been working hard for 20 years without perceiving any progress in their personal lives.

  6. CommentedGergely Horvath

    Foreign NGOs are audited in the USA since 1932. The very same regulation has been put in place in the past years in Hungary (as well as in Russia). But of course auditing foreign NGOs is not "allowed" to countries other than the USA.

  7. CommentedGergely Horvath

    The author is the one who has clearly no respect for democracy. Orban has a 2/3 majority in the parliament of Hungary. He should just accept that the parties that he supports have lost and wait for the next election. "Removing" the prime minister of a country who has been elected in fair elections is an extremely undemocratic act.
    I understand that Orban's politics are bad for multinational companies and banks and that they have reasons to activate their lobbies against Orban. That's understandable, if the profit figures are going down, who cares if the Prime Minister has been elected in a fair democratic process.
    (This is the website that I read most often, because such kind of unserious garbage usually does not show up here.)

  8. CommentedHungarian Farm

    Sorry, the hungarian prime minister is a tragedy of Hungary. The older time thought, Mr. Viktor give lots of salaries, and a better life. They signed Vitor at the electrolit. The newer 4 years are very much, and it should be better if Viktor does run from Hungary bery far. With the Hungarian National Bank, or Mr. Janos Lazar. He and the his friends steal lots of money from the country. The hungarian people are very stupid and the other parties do not work! I agree with other states, and I hope the hungarian people "wake up" as soon as!

      CommentedKatalin Bertalan

      Hungarian Farm, You are a liar! The hungarian people are very clever and calm, they work very hard every day. Who know us learn this about us. Hungary has own wonderful history and it's people is able and ready to make it's future here in Europe where we live. The lost of hungarian opposition parties due to the inability to create a good life to hungarian people, they are without any conceptions and serve strange interests.

  9. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    Without arguing about the state of Hungary I still see the problem differently.
    It seems whenever we see a problem, the only solutions we consider are the negative ones, warnings, threats, restrictions, embargoes, even military actions and so on.

    Everybody knows that only positive motivation can produce long term results.
    And here the EU fails miserably.

    Instead of achieving the "European dream", providing a true, supra-national framework of nations, mutually complementing each other, bettering the lives of the citizens, it has become a failed single market, stubbornly trying to resuscitate, sustain a collapsing economical and financial system at the expense of the lives of the citizens, while instead of mutually complementing cooperation all we see is continuing ruthless and wasteful competition and mutual blame.

    If the EU functioned as promised, it would have attracted not only its present members but even Russia, or other further nations providing example for the rest of the world, and nobody, not even the UK would consider leaving.

    We can see in the news with increasing frequency how futile negative pressure, "war on anything" and "deterrence" is. We cannot "build" a future on fear and negative action, only on positive examples and inspiration, which in the case of a global, integral world has to be globally mutual.

  10. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Messrs Thorsten Benner and Wolfgang H. Reinicke, "Europe's Orban problem" has become not only an embarrassment but also a burden, because Viktor Orban constantly ignores "the European Union’s core values and practices". He misled the world about his democratic belief while he was prime minister between 1998 to 2002. The European Union conducted talks with Hungary over membership. In 1999 it joined NATO and in 2004 the EU.
    Hungary was badly hit by the global financial crisis in 2008. The value of the forint plummeted and its credit status reduced to junk status. Many homeowners had taken out mortgages denominated in Swiss francs since 2004, because of lower interest rates. When the forint plunged in value homeowners faced rapidly rising monthly payments. In 2010 Orban returned to power and he decided the banks — mostly foreign-owned — had to pay for it. A new law enabled persons with loans denominated in Swiss francs to pay them off by using an exchange rate of 180 Hungarian forints to the franc — about a 25 percent discount to the market rate of almost 240 forints.
    Since 2010, Orban's populist government had upset many in Europe. The state of democracy had been eroded and civil liberties undermined. It passed a media law that aimed at silencing critics. It walked away from an agreement with the IMF, choosing to seek fiscal stimulus rather than reducing deficits, as the previous government had promised to do after it was bailed out in 2008 by a rescue package worth 20bn euros. Depite budget deficit the government still promised big utility price cuts for households, higher salaries for teachers and generous childcare benefits. Constitutional changes had been a thorn in the EU's side, as they removed essential democratic checks and balances and curtailed civil liberties, harmed free speech and cemented Fidesz, the ruling party's hold on power. Orban insisted his policies were popular with ordinary Hungarians and that constitutional reform was needed in order to complete the work of eradicating the legacy of Communism from the country. His populist approach seems to go down well with many Hungarians. He has not been afraid to appeal to nationalist sentiments, often declaring Hungary's unique character - being engaged in a perpetual struggle against foreign powers.
    There's no doubt that "his ultimate objective is to build an “illiberal state” on “national foundations.” Orban is trying to reinterpret Hungarian history and play down any episodes that cast a shadow on the country's reputation, by undersocreing the nature of Hungarian democracy, which is different from that in other countries. He always says that Hungary had in the past been forced to subjugate to much more powerful countries. Now he decides the country will not be told what to do by bureacrats from a supra-national force such as the EU, which is said to be trying to impose alien liberal and leftist values on other countries.
    Indeed the European Union has to send a stark message to "Orbán that behaving like a populist autocrat in the center of Europ" is not acceptable. Either he plays by the rules or he will be treated as a pariah!

  11. CommentedJ E

    I love the irony of your solution to perceived anti democratic tendencies... deny democratically elected representatives their seats in parliament.

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