31 January 2019

From "check" to "checkmate"

Blog: The changing relations between Hungary and the EU

parlement Boedapest, Hongarije
The Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest.

The political course in Hungary has increasingly diverged from the democratic values that the European Union advocates. What can the EU do? Ekaterina Rashkova, Assistant Professor at the Utrecht University School of Governance, gives her analysis.

"In the last couple of months, the political situation in Hungary has taken a turn in sharp contrast with the democratic values of the European Union. A number of laws have been changed or enacted. These new legal arrangements limit personal freedoms, breach human rights, and concentrate the political power within the incumbent government of the nationalist conservative party Fidesz. The political developments in Hungary since Fidesz’ last electoral victory have spurred a large amount of international attention, as well as popular revolt. Most recently, the election of the European People’s Party spietzenkandidat for President of the (new) European Commission, Manfred Weber, often seen as Orban supporter, resulted in media discussions on the implications this internal election has for EU Politics altogether."

"Mudde (2018) links Orban’s politics to Trump’s America and warns against the changing outlook of European politics, where he sees the European People’s Party – the main right-wing political group of the European Union (also home to Fidesz) – to be ‘much more the party of Victor Orban than of Angela Merkel’. In the aftermath of the European Parliament vote against Hungary, which took place in September 2018, and the not-much-having-happened after that, the questions that remain are: What will it take from the European Union to change the course of political action in Hungary and will the European Union (manage to) do that?"

What has happened?

"In April 2018, Fidesz, a nationalist, conservative right-wing populist party, won the national election, retaining its two-thirds grip of the 199 parliamentary seats after its landslide victories of 2010 and 2014. Victor Orban remained the prime minister. On first glance, not much had changed – the same political party, the same leader, yet different and more deeply disturbing for the international community politics. Since the start of its term, the fourth Orban cabinet has adopted legislation directly or indirectly targeting multiple sectors within society. Legal changes have been made against the education sector and academic freedom with the ‘Stop-Soros Law’ and the banning of gender studies in Hungarian universities, the independence of the courts has been further blurred with new constitutional amendments, there has been a serious attempt to discredit civil society organizations which help immigrants and asylum seekers and to curb their activity by publicly denouncing what they do and subjecting them to newly introduced taxes."

"Media ownership has been concentrated in holding with close ties to the government. The Orban government went far as to incriminate help to asylum seekers, making such activity punishable with prison, it also banned homelessness, adopted new inadmissibility reasons among which about the land from which asylum seekers enter Hungary making it practically impossible for someone to receive asylum, and even denied food to those challenging governmental decisions in court. If that wasn’t enough, after turning on those who stand for freedom of expression and those who stand for protecting human rights, Orban’s government turned onto its own people. On December 20th, Victor Orban signed amendments to the Labour Law, which allow businesses to request unpaid overtime work in the amount of 400 hours per year from their workers. Dubbed ‘Slave Law’, the changes are in effect of January 1, 2019, and are likely to spark the first general strike after the fall of communism."

What did the European Union do?

"The European Union has expressed its disapproval of the politics of the Orban government repeatedly. In April, 2018, after deciding that the Hungarian Higher Education Law is not compatible with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the Commission sends a Letter of Formal Notice to the Hungarian Government on the Hungarian Higher Education Law, to which Hungary has one month to reply. Following are statements by the EPP and a resolution by the European Parliament, which urge the Hungarian government to repeal controversial laws. Due to the non-response of the Hungarian government, the European Parliament proceeded with official voting on the Article 7’s procedure."

"The vote received the necessary 2/3 majority. Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, if fully implemented, which would require also a 4/5 vote in favor at the European Council, can strip a member-state of its voting rights. However, with the rate that the Orban government is going, isn’t this as Carrera and Bard (2018) noted, too little, too late?"

Who can stop Orban?

If the answer to this question is that the EU’s way of responding to the spread of illiberalism right within its territory is not as successful as hoped, ‘what are the alternatives?’. In addition to pressure from outside, there are two other possibilities – a mass bottom-up revolt of the people, or internal party dissent (similar to the dynamics, which led to the demise of the communist regime). And to close off with a chess metaphor, if the king keeps changing the rules, so that he can always escape the check-mate, the highest likelihood that his reign will crumble is if and when his own fleet – from queen to pawns – resists to move by the new rules of the game. And the likelihood of the latter is higher with increasing pressure from abroad, and the looming possibility of national revolt.

This blog was first published at the Montesquieu Institiuut.

Dr. Ekaterina Rashkova-Gerbrands is an Assistant Professor at the Utrecht University School of Governance, where she does a lot of research into politics in Eastern Europe.